Grow Your Business With the Right Mix of Strategy and Culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

There is much debate as to whether Peter Drucker actually said to Mark Fields, then CEO of Ford Motor Company in March 2000.

Regardless, the quote is used extensively these days to emphasize the importance of how a company operates over the why.

Yet it’s not an entirely accurate statement, because without a clear strategy—a plan that outlines the why and the what an organization wishes to achieve, it’s almost impossible the define the how that’s required to deliver it.

Overemphasizing culture alone is pointless; if founders and leaders aren’t guiding business growth with a series of stretch but SMART goals—measurable milestones,  there won’t be a business culture to manage. 

Both culture and strategy are equally important, require equal amounts of time and development, and you should continually invest in them to ensure your business is successful.

The issue that I see most often is an over-investment in trying to craft the perfect strategy, while under-investing in building a culture that’s committed to getting the job done. It’s a situation that causes confusion, stress, and it becomes an excuse for productivity and performance issues.

The perfect strategy doesn’t exist, so keep it lean

Organizations used to write 10-year strategic business plans, which might seem crazy in today’s ever-changing technology dominated landscape, but honestly, it was crazy then too. 

They were almost always out of date within nine months, and the six months that had been spent on creating them was largely—and frustratingly—irrelevant. In today’s ever-changing world, it’s three years at the most, but if you’re not continuously reviewing your plan against your progress so you can respond to changes and opportunities, you’re not getting the full benefit of the strategic planning process. 

In my view, a good strategy—a lean business plan—should set a direct and achievable marker for the year(s) ahead, with specific milestones to check progress. It should light a spark in people, and set the organization apart, regardless of business sector or industry. 

Your strategic lean plan should be simple, straight-forward, and be grounded in honesty and reality. It should not be focused on short-term fixes or unachievable projects, but instead on medium to long term investments with an element of risk, that evolve the organization into something better and more resilient than before.

A critical part of building a strategy that works is reviewing it regularly—compare your forecasts and plans against what’s actually happening. Take a hard look at emerging threats and opportunities (try doing a SWOT analysis) that might require you to make nimble changes quickly. 

It’s simply not possible to build a perfect strategy, but it is possible to build an unrealistic one. Without realism, there’s no passion. Without passion, there’s no action.
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Cultures evolve to meet strategic challenges

Action is achieved through a collective agreement on how people should work together. The only people that can make this agreement are the team members themselves. 

Strong, functional culture can’t be defined by a firm of consultants, marketing or branding agencies, or the senior management team in isolation. The senior management team can, however, demonstrate their commitment to culture by having a specific section within the strategy document—the lean business plan—dedicated to its definition and evolution.

This commitment to building a strong culture can be demonstrated in different ways. Richard Branson’s commitment is one of empathy and fun. Elon Musk’s commitment is one of risk-taking and big goals. Steve Jobs was about quality and exceeding expectations. 

In reality, your culture needs to encompass aspects of all of these values—and it needs to be wrapped up in respectful humanistic behavior and empathetic communication so that your team feels valued, heard, and feel able to provide critical feedback.

Humanism and emotional intelligence in work culture have never been more important. A recent survey of millennials showed that a company’s purpose (what it stands for) is more important than pay when they assess job offers.

Work culture belongs to everyone that’s part of it, and doing it right takes time and participation. Teams need time to get to know each other so they can build a vision and set of values that describe the people they aspire to be, and the future state they hope to co-create.

This requires the team to agree on a set of behaviors—the ways that people will work together and communicate—and also a commitment to making time for innovation to ensure that the culture is flexible enough to respond to the challenges that the strategy may throw its way.

Once defined, your organization’s culture will require a regular injection of new ideas, energy, and people who are prepared to challenge it. People also need to hold each other accountable to the agreements that they have made, actively coach or manage out those that wish to destroy or obstruct it. 

Without the opportunity to build and evolve the how of culture, then the why and what of strategy will never be achieved, and that could cause many people to go hungry.

AvatarColin Ellis

Colin D Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book ‘Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work’(Wiley $21) has seen him travel all over the world to help organizations transform the way they get things done. For more information about how Colin can help your team visit