Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast. Getting a grip on why your change efforts aren’t gaining traction

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Our Experience

Is that trying to get the organization to do things that aren’t aligned with the culture is like pushing sand uphill.

Culture is broad, deep, and stable

It’s the unwritten code – norms, myths, and behaviors, that affect how people feel about the organization, how decisions are made – within an organization that everyone knows. Communicated at the water cooler and through observation, it encourages conversations, behaviors, and actions that shape the direction of the organization. It’s handed down informally, through story and lore. Those behaviors and actions can range from:

Positive action, supportive of the leaders’ and organization’s strategy

Inaction, either afraid to act (often from a history of getting punished for an error), or unable to formulate a plan to act (often seen in organizations that develop great strategies but don’t translate them into plans and tasks, or hold people accountable for results)

Resistance, overt and covert. Those that speak out, refuse to take action, or organize against the strategy are generally easy to identify, while the covert actors can be elusive. 

There are keepers of the code who will resist change until their dying breath, or until they move on…

Can’t hit culture head-on

The “teams” that are brought to Newport, RI in summer to crew on the old America’s Cup 12 Meters for “teambuilding”… a successful day requires the right behaviors and actions:

  • An objective, strategy, and plan – to win, where to head, how we will get there
  •  An organization – the division of labor
  • Communication and coordination – from the Captain all the way to the grinders

Looks like fun, eh?

We find humor in knowing that they (well most of them that aren’t miserably wet) are having a great time and that when they return to work, nothing will be different. The incentives, structures, communications, and norms will continue to drive the old behaviors.


This is not to say that activities of this nature can’t be productive – using the 12 Meter race experience as a metaphor to analyze and identify the environmental changes needed as foundation for strategic planning can be very effective.

How to lead a change in culture


Until the environment can be altered, part of developing strategic initiatives should include testing them for alignment with the culture – think of a “sieve” through which objective strategies must pass to become reality. 

For example, “Traditionally in this organization, Service and Sales don’t communicate accurately or in a timely manner with Engineering and Manufacturing about customer problems.” Any initiative dependent on collaboration by these two parts of the organization needs to be considered in light of this cultural issue.

 That which passes through the sieve is far more likely to be successful.

It takes consistency and persistence!

Methodical, deliberate, repeated, with quiet discipline, building of tangible evidence that the plans make sense and deliver results.

Change the environment.

Processes. Information flow. Metrics. Incentives. Deployment of resources. And this may require getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats (Jim Collins’ Good to Great)

Model it, live it!

Culture change needs to be modeled from top to bottom of an organization. Executives, Directors, Managers, and Supervisors have to “be the change they want to see”. They need to display the behaviors that will support movement in the right direction – to demonstrate transparency, collaboration, and communicate frequently and accurately.

In Conclusion

  • Don’t expect everyone to be happy with it, and expect a few to leave or have to go…
  • It’s going to take more effort and time than you imagine
  • It’s worth it!