“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
These words, often attributed to Peter Drucker, are frequently quoted by people who see culture at the heart of all great businesses.
Strategy is written down on paper whereas culture determines how things get done. Most people can come up with a strategy, but it’s much harder to build a winning culture. Moreover, a brilliant strategy without a great culture is ‘”all talk and no action”, while a company with a winning culture can succeed even if its strategy is mediocre. It is far easier to change strategy than culture.
Strategy ultimately consists of two aspects; which sectors should you be in and what is the value proposition that you will go to market with in each of those sectors?
A business’s cultural strengths are central to the first aspect of your strategy (sectors). For example, Ryanair has a culture of keeping costs down and offering cheap prices. As such, they would probably not succeed if they entered the premium, private jet sector where wealthy clients expect high-end service and the best of everything.
Maintaining cultural coherence across a company’s divisions should be an essential factor when determining a corporate strategy. No culture, however strong, can overcome poor choices when it comes to corporate strategy. The second aspect of your strategy is the value proposition. Customers consider more than concrete features and benefits when choosing between alternative providers. They also consider “the intangibles.” In fact, these often become the tiebreaker when tangible differences are difficult to discern. For example, Virgin Airlines tries to attract passengers who like its casual, fun and non-establishment attitude in how it operates.
The businesses with the best cultures have instilled norms of behaviour that are essential features of their winning value propositions. For example, in Virgin’s case, offering consistently fun service at a reasonable price. What these companies really demonstrate is how culture is an essential variable – much like your product offering, pricing policy, and distribution channels – that should be considered when choosing strategies for your business. This is especially so when the behaviour of your people, and particularly your frontline staff, can give you an edge with your customers.
Strategy must be rooted in the cultural strengths you have and the cultural needs of your businesses. If culture is hard to change, which it is, then strategy is too. Both take years to build; both take years to change. Don’t let culture eat strategy for breakfast. Have them feed each other.