Line it Up: Why You Need to Align Culture and Strategy

September 13, 2018 Chris Cooper

culture strategy - lining up blocks

Not long ago, the EVP of a multinational client called us in to say that his company had recently been through an expensive strategic planning exercise with a major consulting firm. The firm left them with a detailed implementation roadmap. And though the company had been attempting to implement this roadmap for a few months, they had not met objectives. Our client had just been asked to take over the project, and he was frustrated. “The problem is,” he said, “that no one can really get their arms around this, and so far, people seem to either genuinely not know what to do or actively resist the plan, and in each case retreat into passive-aggressive blocking mode.”

Two main problems immediately became obvious:

  1. The consulting firm’s implementation roadmap was a binder about 6 inches deep with over 100 densely packed PowerPoint slides.
  2. While a tremendous amount of thought had been given to engineering every project, subproject, and step, no thought had been given to ensuring the participation of the individuals and departments who would be affected by it.

The mobilizing potential of an organization’s culture is rarely recognized during implementation planning. Neither is its capacity to insidiously block plans that its members can’t understand or relate to.

Culture Strategy: Ensuring Greater Alignment

At my consulting firm, L&C Strategic Advisory, we define an organization’s culture as “the way we do things around here.” Culture is the invisible glue that binds an organization together. To make successful changes to a business, we need to understand the values on which its culture is based. What will have to change for people to respond to the new strategy? Frequently, the values of innovation, collaboration, and fearlessness will have to be adopted or moved to the forefront. Many groups also need to refresh their understanding of the culture’s basic values—things like transparency, professionalism, and so on.

Fortunately, there are culture metrics that make it easier to compare where corporate and personal values are and identify any gaps between them and the values the organization needs to implement its new strategy. At L&C, we often use these to demonstrate the link between a company’s culture and its business outcomes.

It also helps to remember that the first step in making changes to implement a strategy is, to quote John Kotter, a sense of urgency. In its broadest sense, that means people need to understand why it’s in their interests to get behind a new strategy and what changes it will require. It might be about beating the competition or benefiting the communities; it might also come from reasons of self-interest or self-preservation. To get the message across, there has to be open communication across the organization. Everyone must understand not just the plan itself, but the adjustments that will have to be made to “how we do things.” And the communication process must be as participative as possible, giving people the opportunity to debate, understand, and, where appropriate, make their own suggestions as to how the implementation plan should unfold.

Work Within Your Company’s Culture (Or Help Them Change)

As our client put it, “They gave us the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’—the ‘hard’ but not the ‘soft.’” No matter how well-researched and meticulously crafted your strategy is, it will be extremely difficult to implement if your culture does not understand, and sees no reason to try and understand, its rationale. Conversely, a well thought-through strategy that’s developed with the culture in mind, with plentiful opportunities for those affected to understand “the why” and at least be consulted on “the how,” stands a much better chance of success. In the words of Nilofer Merchant, culture does indeed trump strategy every time.

This post first appeared at L&C Advisors.

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About the Author

Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper is a partner at L&C Strategic Advisory Consultants, a boutique management consulting firm based in Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto. Formerly a partner at KPMG, Chris brings over three decades of experience in providing strategic advice for organizational and individual change leadership.

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