Does Culture Eat Strategy for Breakfast?

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My Favourite Quote

Peter Drucker once said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Those words chime so loudly for me that it is like sitting in the belfry next to Big Ben. Just because I agree with a statement doesn’t make it right. Beliefs are dangerous things, so I decided I had better check.

Is there any evidence that culture drives business performance? Does culture really eat strategy for breakfast?

An Academic Perspective

I did a comprehensive literature search (I looked at the top 10 results on Google Scholar, which is better than nothing). I discovered that most academic papers are written by academics for academics. They are hard work.

Fortunately, I found this interesting paper (if you are that way inclined). It is by The Centre for Evidence-Based Management.

They looked through hundreds of different papers separating the wheat from the chaff and came to these conclusions:

  • There is no consensus on what’ organizational culture’ entails 
  • It is unclear how organizational culture enhances performance 
  • There is no consensus on how organizational culture can be measured. 
  • Organizational culture is a weak predictor of performance when compared to other factors 
  • It is not possible to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of interventions in changing organizational culture 

If that wasn’t a clear enough drubbing of Mr Druker’s quote, the paper concludes:

There is little evidence consistently linking organizational culture to performance, but if such a link should exist, it is very weak and too small to be practically meaningful. As such, organizations and practitioners should be careful spending time and money on company-wide culture change programs as they are not likely to increase performance. 

Centre for Evidence-Based Management

Ouch

Let me get off the fence. I didn’t like this report at all; it challenged my beliefs, and secondly (and no less importantly), they kept spelling organisational with a z.

As a practitioner rather than an academic, it is evident to me that culture drives performance. So why doesn’t the literature support that?

My Counterargument

The first three points shoot the research down:

  • There is no consensus on what’ organizational culture’ entails 
  • It is unclear how organizational culture enhances performance 
  • There is no consensus on how organizational culture can be measured.

There are all sorts of cultures; some cultures don’t eat seafood, whereas others believe in “the rapture”. It is hard to see how either of those would increase performance. The academics can’t agree on what culture means, how to measure it or how it might improve performance. Is it a big surprise that they can’t prove a relationship?

A Tighter Hypothesis

A culture that promotes organisational learning promotes performance.

My reasoning goes a little like this:

  1. High performing organisations are excellent
  2. You can only become excellent if you are always getting better
  3. You only get better if you are constantly learning

My less than snappy addition to Peter Drucker’s quote is that

A learning culture eats strategy for breakfast.

What Stops Learning?

I trawled the other side of the internet (the bit that is long on opinion and short on fact). When I searched for barriers to learning, I came back with the following pearls of wisdom.

Barriers to Learning in Children:

According to twinkl, the online educational publishing house

A child’s emotional state can detrimentally affect their learning in some cases. They may not be reaching their potential because:

  • they’re afraid of failing or of specific subjects;
  • they have shame or insecurity about their ability in relation to their peers;
  • they may be wary of change or worried about moving into a new environment;
  • they may be overwhelmed by new subjects if they’re struggling.

Children sometimes underperform at school because they aren’t motivated.

  • If a task is too challenging or too easy for a pupil, they’ll lose motivation to complete it.
  • If a child doesn’t see an obvious goal, they may lose interest in the task.
  • Children may procrastinate simply because they don’t find the task interesting.
  • Children may lose interest in learning if they don’t like their learning environment.
Barriers to Learning in Adults

The Department of Education lists these barriers to learning in adults:

  • Cost – adults can’t afford to invest in education.
  • Family – no support for childcare, so people (especially women) don’t have the time for education.
  • Awareness – many don’t know what educational opportunities are available.
  • The learning offer – the course is too advanced, or there isn’t enough support.
  • Self-belief – many people lack self-confidence and fear looking and feeling stupid.
  • Social norms – adults have a strong need to follow the crowd.

It isn’t too hard to see the similarities between children and adults.

What is a Learning Culture?

What sort of culture removes these barriers so that both the employees and the organisation can learn? The management challenge is to:

  1. Remove the fear of failure, be that the fear of being hit with a stick or missing the carrot.
  2. Create a compelling direction that makes learning important.
  3. Create a clear sense of progress, using measures, not targets, to create an obvious goal.
  4. Provide the resources (time and materials) so that employees can test out their ideas and learn from them
  5. Ensure the work is suitably engaging, balancing an employee’s skills with the given challenge.

If a manager can do that, then his organisation will learn. That will lead to excellence, performance, and profitability for the commercially minded.

Facts and Opinions

Unfortunately, I have slipped into the world of opinion and not fact. I wonder if I can persuade an academic to test my theory.

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Image by Gary Birnie

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