Does Culture Really Eat Strategy for Breakfast?

by Mona Mitchell
President and CEO

Improving culture is a strategy.  It underpins all other strategies. 
Despite its trumping role, “more important” priorities often take precedence.  Since there’s never an opportune time to work on “culture”, now is as good a moment as any.  Don’t you think?  So, let’s start!
First – what is culture anyway?  Besides a misused term and catch-all phrase often without particular substance…
Culture is NOT a process-centric methodology, such as Lean Six Sigma, although establishing and maintaining a positive culture improves the quality improvement / waste reduction potential of such efforts.  Compensation, reward and other systems are in fact sub-sets of culture.  We bandy about the terms.  We need to start by getting clear in our terminology.
Culture IS the collective actions and behaviours of people in an organization as they go about their activities and interactions.  This “invisible” yet highly tangible element of organizational life is reflected in mutual understanding of how things are done and who does them.  Everyday choices convert “culture” into actionable outcomes.
Why does culture matter?
  1. Organizational culture drives performance.  It affects every aspect of your business.
  2. Leadership, and those who lead, are the primary drivers of culture.
  3. Constructive cultures embrace calculated risk – unleashing greater innovation, collaborative problem-solving, decision-making power and productivity.
  4. Within successful cultures, high-achievers operate in trusting and engaged ways – demonstrating genuine belief in the organization’s values.
  5. Highly Constructive cultures transcend the typical.  The ensuing “inspiration” (suggestive of the Latin root, inspirare, to “breathe in” a vital life-force) sustains long-term viability due to people’s adaptive and transformational capabilities.
We all recognize the consequences of today’s global financial and economic circumstances: multi-generational stress levels and unprecedented volatility in even the best-managed companies.  By including a focus on culture as “part of your culture”, your capacity to withstand shock and deal with rapid change will dramatically improve.
Be forewarned, though.  Creating an aligned culture requires commitment.  Constant fire-fighting must shift to accomplishing the significant – classic Stephen Covey – the Not Urgent but Important quadrant. Creating an ideal culture further demands willingness.  Executives need to look courageously in the mirror and decide if they truly believe in this “stuff”.
If you can answer these five questions – congratulations.  If not, you are at risk of mouthing just so many platitudes.
  1. Can you explain to employees your fact-based, quantifiable cultural model?
  2. Do you have a written, actionable strategy to improve your culture?
  3. Do you embed within your business strategies the elements of culture that must exist to enable success?
  4. Is there a process in place for the continual review of culture?
  5. Do key executives have “ideal culture” as a metric within their own performance measures?
As with any strategy worth dedicating energy and resources toward, understanding your culture begins with documenting and measuring your current state against the ideal.  The iceberg must be uncovered – below the water line – to gain clarity as to which values (one component of culture), attitudes, behaviours and beliefs support (enablers) versus impede (barriers) attainment of your overall corporate strategies.
Measurement is key to ensuring that corporate culture lifts up from empty rhetoric into observable leadership action.  Ultimately, enterprise-wide cultural transformation demands participation at all levels.  The foundation is executives “walking their talk”.
Measurement System + Strategic Process = Culture Alignment
Naturally, culture assessment is only as effective as the context of measurement, interpretation of results and experience of any consultant you bring on board.  You need someone to tell it like it is, not tell you what they think you want to hear.
At ACHIEVEBLUE, we help organizations achieve their ideal culture.  We use a proven measurement system utilized by thousands of organizations world-wide for over 25 years.  Our A.C.T.I.V.E. Renewal Process ™ process (including Ideal, Current and Leadership/Management Impact Assessments) is designed and facilitated by professionals who help you develop measurable reinforcement and corrective action plans targeted at short- and long-term improvement.  To learn more, click here.

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