What is this behemoth that always comes before business strategy?

Leaders love to talk business strategy. They’re always tinkering with it, whittling away at it, trying to make it better. They think deeply about it. They brainstorm with their lieutenants about how to best approach it. They bring in consultants. They analyze market data. They commission market and customer surveys. They do their best to take in all the inputs, wash them around in the machines, and then create the best strategy they can for the future. Only there is one piece of qualitative data that they often forget to factor in and it is right under their nose the entire time: organizational culture.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

— Peter Drucker

The worst organizational culture trounces the best laid strategies. It isn’t even close. If your strategy requires an organizational culture shift, you can forget your strategy until the culture shifts. No new actions or behaviors survive without first shifting the culture to support them. Leaders are far better off looking at and analyzing their culture first before tinkering with strategy. All strategic plans are moot without the right organizational culture to execute them. So, start there. Ask, What kind of culture would we need in order to make this plan a reality? Then, ask, How would we shift our culture to be more open to this way of thinking?

Since culture starts at the top of the food chain and trickles down from there, all organizational culture change must start at the top. Leaders must shape the thoughts and behaviors they wish to see in their people. And they must lead this shift by example. You want to see your people behaving differently? You start by behaving differently and exhibiting the behavior you wish to see in others. It all begins with how the bosses at the top treat one another and how they treat their lieutenants. You cannot ask everyone else to shift their thinking and their behavior without you first shifting your thinking and behavior. Embody the organizational change you wish to see.

It is important to note that nothing is harder for a leader than getting people to change behavior. Adult behavior change is difficult. No one looks forward to doing it. The older we get, the more experience we get, the more set in our ways we get, the less inclined we are to change them. We get entrenched with the past, with the old way of doing things. We do not go out seeking better, improved paths forward. It’s just not natural. We find a course and stick to it. And we see changes to the course or the status quo as threats.

Most of us do not like it when change agents come into the workplace and throw wrenches into the way things have always been done. People think, we’ve always done it this way and it has worked — why change it? It is perfectly natural to think this. Worse, if changes have been attempted in the past and they were either proven ineffective or gobbled up and spit out by organizational culture, this breeds cynicism and close-mindedness to new ways of thinking and doing. Naturally, this only makes organizational shifts harder.

While the only constant is change, most will take anything but that. They are loathe to anything changing in their world.

Only if we don’t change, if we don’t shift and our marketplace does, where does this lead us? If we’re stuck in the old ways of doing things and the group of people we serve make a big change and begin doing business in another way, we’re out. They won’t stick around for us. They’ve moved on and we’re left holding the bag. We must shift with them. We must acknowledge the change and morph with it despite it being painful. No one said this was easy, which is why so many of us dislike change. Regardless, we charge ahead, changing along the way.

While it is almost cliche to mention them, the lessons left by the companies that chose not to change continue to act as cautionary business tales. Kodak, a once proud multi-billion dollar enterprise, refused to join the digital revolution and stuck to its old ways of doing things. You know, the way things have always been done. Only for this context, consumers and the rest of the business world did not want to stick with the way things had always been done. Kodak’s intransigence to change and its stay-the-course ethos cost it and its thousands of employees everything. They saw change happening all around them — obvious change happening everywhere they looked — yet they bullheadedly forged a strategic path straight ahead into oblivion.

Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of the ubiquitous Blackberry device of the early to mid-00’s, the company which brought us email to the mobile phone, is another. RIM had a significant chunk of the business mobile device market into around 2007–2008. People — especially business people — loved that they could get their email on their phone! This made us all feel wildly productive and effective. RIM had a great product and we all loved using it, even if it was shaped and felt like a brick.

Then, in June 2007, Apple releases the first iPhone. While not directly aimed at RIM out of the gate, Apple’s first entree into the mobile phone market was vastly better than anything out there. (Yes, especially compared to Microsoft’s phone, which didn’t last long the market.) RIM, despite its historical innovations, did not have a good answer to Apple’s iPhone, which featured one of the first touch screens ever created.

Meanwhile, RIM kept churning out Blackberry devices that were only slightly better than previous iterations, nothing revolutionary. Apple kept adding cool features to its phones and releasing new, major versions of iPhone each year. To further hurt RIM, Apple’s phones were designed to work perfectly with Apple’s hardware and software, a combination RIM could not match. RIM was simply outplayed, outsmarted, and out-innovated by Apple.

Where is RIM now? Do you know anyone who still uses a Blackberry?

Tune in tomorrow for Part II on the Culture Behemoth eating Strategy for breakfast.

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I’m a sales, marketing and tech Pro who creates content designed to help people solve problems and shift perspectives.

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