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Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Article by Steve Harvey, Director Impromptu

It can be said that much of the work we do is strongly connected with and driven by delivering strategy: introducing a new performance management framework; growing sales; improving customer service scores; embedding consulting and partnering as an engagement model; and so on. When I think about Peter Drucker’s assertion, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, I face the doubts I have about the sustainable impact of what we do. We do great work which contributes to the successful execution of whatever initiative is being pursued, of that there is little doubt. But is that enough?

A case in point is a recent programme we have been involved with, for a major motor manufacturer, working with their HR Business Partners and very senior managers from across the business to help them embrace a refreshed talent development process. This is terrific work. You can feel the engagement in the room, see light bulbs going on, taste the participants’ commitment to being champions of the cause.

And yet, as the participants walk out of the room, full of enthusiasm and invigorated by renewed endeavour, I am troubled by a germ of uncertainty. They are walking back into a context that knows nothing of the experiences they have just shared, a prevailing culture of delivery and targets and operational focus and pace and transaction that remains, as yet, untroubled by the transformation that has just taken place. In that moment I fear transience, dissipation, dilution and, perhaps, ultimately, dissolution, like the fading of echoes of a voice in a cave that resound for a few moments before the silence returns.

But there is something else, a seed of a thought that counters this bleak prognosis. I remember an occasion a couple of years ago, at a meeting, where, at the start, the twelve or so attendees were introducing themselves. One of them, a now senior HR manager and our sponsor, paused half way through his introduction and looked at me. I recognised him, I had role played with him a couple of years before. “I know you,” he said, “you changed my life.”

I am sure many, if not all of us, have had such experiences, moments that remind us of the gift we have, to transform and to awaken. Johnson and Scholes’ culture web helps me make sense of this. The six interconnected elements of culture – rituals and routines, organisational structure, power structures, control systems, symbols and stories – perhaps tell us something about the power we have to effect change, at the heart.

It is the last of these culture web elements that speaks loudest to me. Maybe it is in our ability to impact on the stories that people tell, to themselves and to each other, that is the origin of the change we induce. ‘You changed my life’ is, maybe, the opening line of a powerful story and perhaps one where the echoes continue to resound rather than melt away.

Culture may eat strategy for breakfast, but where we work is at the intersection between culture and strategy, and that is where my doubts diminish and are replaced by hope and optimism and the certainty that for each life changing experience there will be a new story to tell.