When Culture can Tank your Strategy.

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Strategy is about figuring out how to be successful in the places you choose to compete. It can be a fun exercise to dream that big dream, set your sight on a long-range goal that is maybe, just barely attainable. Collins in his book Good to Great called these big ideas a BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goal. You may have been told to develop a BHAG, think big, go for gold, and stretch yourself. If you are like me you were also told to step back from that big goal and put the steps in place to achieve it. What gets measured gets done. The mantras surrounding strategy are about as endless as strategies themselves.

But, have you ever set a goal and NOT achieved it? Not from lack of effort, or some random disruption that was unavoidable. I’m talking about conditions seeming to be favorable, but that goal you were striving for just did not happen. This could be a work goal, or something more personal. As you engage in a postmortem, if you even did one, you might stumble into a few reasons why it didn’t work, but sometimes we are left not really knowing what went wrong. We just can’t exactly put your finger on it.

Have you ever wondered if maybe the culture in which you were trying to accomplish your goal was not aligned with what you were trying to achieve?

In other words, the underlying beliefs and values were not in sync with what you said you wanted to do. That’s how culture can tank strategy.

Culture is how things ARE around you. It includes underlying assumptions, beliefs, biases, behaviors, tacit and explicit. If strategy is what you put on the breakroom notice board and list on PowerPoint presentation slides, then culture is what is happening among your people in the breakroom, or those reading those slides. You say you want to be the best, but those who can help you achieve it, are not really on board. You may not be on board either.

Change is difficult because we like comfort, routines, and predictability. This is biologically hard-wired in us because lack of being able to predict an outcome, feels dangerous. And most of like to avoid danger, especially the kind that could kill us. So we come at change with some wariness, hesitancy, and a lot of skepticism. This change needs to be GREAT to get our attention.

How many strategic plans have you read that really energize people to make this leap of change? I’ve had very few occasions where a strategy, even my own personal ones, created a sense of excitement, and the ability to overcome that initial inertia needed to metaphorically get off the couch.

Want to know a secret?

Taking a close look at your culture: all those assumptions, values, beliefs, and ways of doing things, is a great foundation BEFORE you build a strategy. Get to know yourself, and your people. Find out what they care about, what inspires them, what motivates and encourages, what they want from their job, from their company, and from their boss. Start there. Begin with a great deal of curiosity about who they are, what they do, and why they do what they do. When you know this, you can build a strategy that resonates with people. You can build a strategy that is attached to the culture you are, and hopefully the one you are striving to be. Because culture has aspirations too, and works beautifully alongside your strategy.

This is called Building Cultural Strategy.

It does not have to be complicated, but it needs to be intentional. Take the time to dig a little deeper before you engage in strategic planning. Daniel Pink in his book When, says before we strike out with some new goal we should do a “pre-mortem” where we gather and project to a point in the future when we have accomplished our goals, and we dissect what got in our way, went horribly wrong, or took an unexpected path. Then bring that kind of thinking into the planning process and build a more solid path forward, with your eyes wide open, embracing the obstacles and setbacks, welcoming the challenge of change. If your strategy and culture are aligned, it will be like having the wind at your back. It won’t be easy, but you will notice the lift.




“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

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denise gaskin, ph.d.

denise gaskin, ph.d.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

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