What’s Culture Got To Do With Strategy?

Not long ago the EVP of a multinational client called us in it to say that his company had recently been through an expensive strategic planning exercise with a major consulting firm and had been left with a detailed implementation roadmap. Although they’d been going through the implementation for a few months, the implementation of the roadmap had not met objectives, and our client had just been asked to take over the project. “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 became immediately obvious:

  • first, the consultants’ Implementation Roadmap, was a binder about 6 inches deep with over 100 densely packed PowerPoint slides.
  • second, while a tremendous amount of thought had been given to engineering every project, subproject and step, no thought had been given to how to ensure the participation of the individuals and departments who would be affected by it.

When it comes to planning implementation, all too often the mobilizing potential of an organization’s culture is not recognized, neither is its capacity to insidiously block plans that its members neither understand nor can relate to.


If we accept that an organization’s culture is “how we do things around here” or the invisible glue that binds an organization together, then we need to understand the values on which that culture is based and what will have to change to respond to the new strategy: frequently innovation, collaboration and fearlessness will be values that will have to be adopted or moved to the forefront, and a refreshed understanding of the group’s basic values such as transparency, professionalism etc. will also be needed. There are metrics of culture that can enable a comparison of where corporate and personal values are at present and any gaps between them and the values that the organization needs to implement its new strategy (and culture is an area we help our clients assess all the time).

We should also 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 this means that people need to understand why it’s in their interests to get behind a new strategy and the changes that will require. This can come from strategies to beat the competition, innovate, benefit our communities, etc. but it can also come from reasons of self-interest or self-preservation. To get the message across there has to be open communication right across the organization  to ensure an understanding of the plan itself and the adjustments to “how we do things” that will have to be made.. This communication needs to 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.


As our client put it “they gave us the what but not the how, the ‘hard’ but not the ‘soft’”. The best researched and most meticulously thought through strategy is extremely difficult to implement in the face of a culture that does not understand, and sees no reason to try and understand, its rationale. Conversely, a well thought through strategy 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.