Design for People: Culture v Strategy

Does one eat the other's lunch or do they share a biscuit over tea?

We’ve had the privilege of observing numerous organizations, businesses and foundations ranging from one to nearly one hundred thousand employees worldwide. We’ve watched thoughtfully designed efforts take fire inside a corporation and others fizzle out before leaving an inbox. When this happens, we wonder, how much of a role does the culture or strategy have in whether or not something advances within an organization?

We've spent some time reviewing the current conversation around the topic of “Strategy vs. Culture.” One side of the debate, "Culture vs. Strategy: What's More Important?", relegates culture to ping pong, pool tables and coffee breaks. On the other side, "Culture Trumps Strategy, Every Time," doesn't seem to go far enough – perhaps that's because they’re promoting a book. 

Let's frame this up and see where it goes from a design perspective. 

Here’s a basic set of four types of culture.  We've added corporations we've worked with that embody each of these culture types.

1.    Clan oriented cultures are family-like, with a focus on mentoring, nurturing, and “doing things together.” (Patagonia)
2.    Adhocracy oriented cultures are dynamic and entrepreneurial, with a focus on risk-taking, innovation, and “doing things first.” (Herman Miller)
3.    Market oriented cultures are results oriented, with a focus on competition, achievement, and “getting the job done.” (3M)
4.    Hierarchy oriented cultures are structured and controlled, with a focus on efficiency, stability and “doing things right.” (IBM)

When you thoughtfully design a plan (i.e. formulate a strategy) for the direction you will take a brand, product line, new offering or other organizational initiative, do you consider culture? From our observations, those with experience in the organization do consider culture. It comes in the form of phrases like, "oh we would never do something like that" or "we could never get that idea approved." These are hints at the culture, taken from people who have been there long enough to know. 

Then, we fold in those new to an organization looking to make a mark and create necessary change. Those are the exciting ones who might even be called a virus inside the corporate organism. The change they create challenges culture or even battles it in a “clash of clans” manner. But, we also know culture changes slowly if at all, once established. 

So, perhaps, when something is designed for people inside and outside an organization it also considers culture a friend not foe. Some strategies just won't work inside some cultures and some cultures will implode if a strategy is taken forward (by force) and the organization, brand and people will suffer. 

From our perspective, it seems like strategy and culture are young Irish brothers, you can get them to be the best of friends just as easy as find them in a bloody brawl over a sideways look. This leaves three beliefs coming from this post: 

1.    We believe the people inside benefit when the two work hard together. 

2.    We believe it is better to leverage a culture vs change it in favor of a strategy.

3.    We believe a strategy can die a thousand deaths inside a culture not able to accept it.

We hope to hear your perspective and experiences on this subject.


Greg Lindholm said...

Great thoughts and a very good perspective. My experience with culture vs strategy definitely falls in line with the three beliefs at the conclusion of the post. I was hired into my current company right as the start its corporate takeover (private firm being purchased by a public company). I learned quickly, the existing culture was fast paced, and if things need to get done, then let's get moving, very entrepreneurial; while the new corporate culture was very hierarchal and looking for structure and control. These two cultures fought for a while after the initial merging and the new parent company strategy was vastly different as well; a lot of people left citing the shift in culture and strategy as a pain point. As the two companies have started to meld together over the past few years, it has been interesting to see the culture continue to shift, ultimately losing more of its entrepreneurial nature to more of a controlled process driven environment. With more of the parent culture starting to be the norm, the initial strategies set forth are starting to talk hold as well.

As more businesses start buying smaller competitors, I believe there will be a lot more of these culture shifts going on. An interesting area of study and design might be within this space of merging cultures. How can a larger company that wants the smaller company's culture through acquisition make that shift happen? How can a smaller company maintain their cultural identity while still being held under a larger culture and strategy umbrella?

Aaron Keller said...

Greg, very intriguing area of study. The stat that I've always heard is the culture of an organization can't change without 80% of the staff turning over. Which always meant to me, culture doesn't change at quick pace unless there's high growth or significant decline.

But, your idea of companies acquiring for culture is very intriguing. Can it really be done? Can the smaller company be positioned as the acquirer and therefore drive new culture? Curious area of study. Thank you for the thoughts.


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