Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Culture / Strategy Linkage

Aspirational Culture is at the top of my Strategic Leadership Pyramid, not vision, not mission.  It is my firm belief that an organization that focuses on building culture first will be far more successful than an organization that focuses on building vision first.

In other words, I'd put my money on an organization with a powerful culture and no plan before I'd put my money on a powerful plan and a weak culture.

Strategic planning is a paradigm in organizational management.  Everyone does it because they believe it's a best practice.  The fact is, organizations succeed or fail in spite of a strategic plan.  Organizations need to let go of the idea once and for all that traditional strategic planning processes are a good use of their time.  They're not.  For a more comprehensive argument on this, read my post Strategic Planning is Old School.

How many times do important strategic change efforts die because the organization falls into its usual routines -- you know, "the way we do things"?  Vision is ripped apart by the buzz saw of organizational culture time and time again.

Some might argue, isn't it the vision that creates the culture?  If you have a powerful vision, can't you create a powerful culture around it?  Perhaps.  But I would argue when it comes to achieving vision, there is a correlative relationship between vision and culture, not a causal one.

Just as individuals have habits, organizations have routines and communities and societies have norms.  Depending at which level you're working (personal, organizational or larger community), before vision, strategies and goals can be accomplished successfully, these habits, routines and norms need to be addressed and put into alignment with desired outcomes.

In people, habitual responses are recognized as a "personality." My habitual response to conflict or stress, for example, may be to people-please.  You know people with a people-pleaser personality.  You also know people who when faced with conflict habitually engage in a "my way or the highway" -- the "fight" end of "fight or flight" response.

Habitual patterns allow us to respond automatically without having to think each time a stressful situation arises "how will I deal with this?"   Instead, we have subconsciously chosen a "winning formula" for facing the world that creates what often feels like an instinctual, automatically triggered response to situations in life.  These habitual responses become "hard wired" in us (I can't believe I people-pleased and let myself get walked all over -- AGAIN!).

Other habits we pick up along the way that are less hard wired than our core personality, and they can be overcome, but not always easily.  Like poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. (For a fantastic book on the neurology of habits, and how to overcome them,  read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.)

Organizations have personalities, too, but we use the term "culture" to describe organizational personalities. My definition of Organizational Culture is: a combination of principles and values that drive routines.  Culture consists of a set of habitual responses within an organization.  Much like personality traits, these routines allow an organization to respond internally and externally without thinking, in an automatic, almost instinctual way.   These habits and routines are critical for productivity and efficiency and are necessary and good -- as long as they are aligned with the desired outcome and vision of the organization.  Frequently, they're not.

People who become part of an organization begin to learn about and adopt the routines (or end up leaving either of their own accord or by force.  Think of the song "I Fought the Law and the Law Won."). If an organizational change effort comes along that doesn't align with the routines, it will either be reconfigured to fit the routines or rejected altogether.

The problem with strategic plans, and why they fail as a tool for vision attainment, is that they focus too much on prescribed action, rather than aligned action.  In other words, they are focused on producing specific actions, rather than on the principles and values that drive aligned actions.

What drives vision achievement is clarity of intention and aligned action, not a plan, not a prescribed process -- though those might be present.  Successful organizations act on principles and values, first.  Not plans.  Plans are a great tool for organizing thoughts around completing tasks and projects and "getting things done."  They are also a great tool for managing projects that have clear milestones and specific short or long-term outcomes.  But they're not great tools for strategic leadership.

Strategies, plans and tactics help a team win games, but it is culture -- the principles and values that drive routines and habits -- that gets them to the championship.   As leaders, therefore, our job #1 is identifying the routines and habits that align with the organization's vision and ensure that those routines become the ones that are "automatic" and "instinctual" in our organizations.   Once aligned action is automatic in an organization, fulfilling the vision is almost a certainty.