Strategy and Culture


David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“Excellence is sustained by one (and only one thing): a culture of excellence….MIT’s longtime organizational effectiveness guru, Ed Schein, famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture, pure and simple, is the bedrock of any and all of the manifestations of excellence.”

(Tom Peters. The Excellence Dividend: Principles for Prospering in Turbulent Times from a Lifetime in Pursuit of Excellence. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p20-21).

July in the United States of America is best thought of as the month in which Independence Day is celebrated. Independence for the United States of America was born out of conflict. By its very nature, that conflict was won and independence declared because of a strategy based on solid information and knowledge of the area in which the conflict was being fought and an equally good working knowledge of the capacity and capabilities of the soldiers involved. However, George Washington would not have proven himself to be the great military leader and indeed the great President of the United States that he was, if he were not also ‘attuned’ to the culture within the military he led and as President, within the newly formed union of the United States of America. As Tom Peters noted in the opening quote: “culture, pure and simple, is the bedrock of any and all of the manifestations of excellence.” In other words, without a strong culture of excellence, it is unlikely that Washington would have been as successful as he was. Why? As Tom Peters alludes to in the opening quote, referencing MIT Professor Ed Schein, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Without a supporting culture, no matter how well-intentioned or planned the strategy might be, if it doesn’t effectively leverage the prevailing culture, then the culture will defeat the imposed strategy at almost every turn. This isn’t just true of the American War of Independence, it is also true for every organization, Government, Non-Government, Corporates ‘for-profit’ or the ‘Not-for-Profits’ looking like Corporates. Strategy is critical to mission success, so too is a healthy culture.

Often when strategy is being talked about by senior leaders, including the C-Suite and indeed Directors or the senior leadership team of a Government agency, it is often talked about as something quite singular, lacking depth, shape or dimension. The reality is, a well-researched, well-defined, well-planned and well-articulated strategy, often has multiple levels to it, is more often than not anchored into some key aspect of the organization and when well-aligned to the culture, the two feed off each other to create a new dimension, possibly even a new era, for the Government agency or for the organization involved.

Writing in the September 2012 edition of the ‘Harvard Business Review’ in an article entitled: ‘Your Strategy Needs a Strategy’, three executives from the Boston Consulting Group, Martin Reeves, Claire Love, and  Philipp Tillmanns, noted that there were “four broad strategic styles—which we label classical, adaptive, shaping, and visionary – emerge.”

What is also alarming, is the lack of conscious consideration to the prevailing culture of the Government agency or organization


What may be extraordinary to the outsider looking in, is the findings from a survey of executives conducted by Reeves, Love and Tillmanns, as to how strategy planning and decision making occurred.

“Accordingly, we weren’t surprised to find that nearly 80% said that in practice they begin their strategic planning by articulating a goal and then analyzing how best to get there. What’s more, some 70% said that in practice they value accuracy over speed of decisions, even when they are well aware that their environment is fast-moving and unpredictable. As a result, a lot of time is being wasted making untenable predictions when a faster, more iterative, and more experimental approach would be more effective. Executives are also closely attuned to quarterly and annual financial reporting, which heavily influences their strategic planning cycles. Nearly 90% said they develop strategic plans on an annual basis, regardless of the actual pace of change in their business environments—or even what they perceive it to be.“

(Reeves, M.,  Love, C., and Tillmanns, P. (2012). ‘Your Strategy Needs a Strategy’ in Harvard Business Review (September 2012).

What is of interest in this data, is that in a fast-moving business environment, the validity and accuracy of the data being used, may be tainted in the short-term by time. Likewise, the speed of which the strategy is developed, decided upon and implemented is paramount and often connected to the bottom line. This has huge implications for Board members who typically set strategy, as it does for leaders of Government agencies, who often have the political leader responsible for their portfolio, directing what and how things ought to happen. As a general principle, good governance is about doing what is right because it is the right thing for the organization to do. Leaders need to be mindful of this key aspect of governance, whilst in the pursuit of what is expedient. What is also alarming, is the lack of conscious consideration to the prevailing culture of the Government agency or organization.

One definition of culture from the discipline of Anthropology, is provided by David Givens.

“Culture represents the entire database of knowledge, values, and traditional ways of viewing the world, which have been transmitted from one generation ahead to the next—nongenetically, apart from DNA—through words, concepts, and symbols.”

Having studied Cultural Anthropology and Sociology, I warm to this definition for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is broad enough to be effective. Secondly, it references that which makes up any group of people, their DNA and non-DNA components. Finally, David Givens situates the knowledge and traditions, with the values of the culture. You could use this definition in the effective study of any community, be it a village in Papua New Guinea, a Legislature or a Board Room on Wall Street. In all cases, if you don’t know what your culture values, then you’ll never know why it is valued. If you have never discovered why this culture values it, you have very little chance of changing it and as much chance again in leveraging it for the collective good. It is perhaps easier to misalign strategy with the culture of the organization, than it is to have strategy and culture work together in tandem. Be it a Government agency, a corporate entity or a ‘not-for-profit, irrespective of the organization you are leading, asking the right questions about the anthropology of your organization should lead you to some fundamentals about the culture of your organization and its search for excellence.

For example:

  • Our organization has a clearly articulated set of values that underpin what we do. How does the culture of the organization support or work against this?
  • Our organization needs a workforce that is well trained and educated. How does the culture support / endorses or disendorses, this identified strategic need?
  • Our organization often looks at the business environment it is in, through traditional means and measures. Does the culture support this or is their advocacy for positive change? (Note: Change here could be healthy and therefore not necessarily a negative).
  • Our organization uses ‘catch-phrases’ that hook the organization back to its prime function. How well understood and supported is this within the culture of the organization?
  • Our organization sees certain concepts as being important. How does the culture view these concepts? Is the culture supportive of these concepts?
  • Our organization uses symbols and logos to express outwardly what we are about, what we value and what is important. How does the culture reflect these same expressions ‘inwardly’, as cultural agents within the organization?

If most answers were in the negative or seemed unsupportive, the leaders have work to do!

This is by no means an exhaustive list and a good leadership team would be able to create their own or add to this one. It should of course be obvious, even to a novice leader, that to discern this information, requires a well-constructed culture survey of the entire organization. If you are a Government agency with 15000 employees, that’s a lot of data to collect. That being the case, it needs to be purposeful. What you are trying to ascertain, is whether or not you have effectively two organizations operating under the umbrella of one organization: the strategic version of the organization and the ‘culture’ version of the organization. If this occurs, almost every strategy the leadership team comes up with will be a fail. Not because the strategy itself wasn’t worthwhile mind you but because the cultural forces working against it are too strong. There is perhaps good logic in creating and maintaining a directorate that is entrusted with honoring the cultural heritage of the organization, it’s traditions and customs, being the conscience of the organization when needed and ensuring alignment between the culture of the organization and the priorities of the organization. Who knows, it may even necessitate a new position be created: Chief Culture Officer. Once you have achieved alignment between strategy and culture, the endgame has to then be maintaining it on a daily basis. After all, harnessing the culture of the organization is a strategy in itself.

As Tom Peters noted:

“Moreover, tending to the culture is a full-time job.”

(Tom Peters. The Excellence Dividend: Principles for Prospering in Turbulent Times from a Lifetime in Pursuit of Excellence. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p21).

Want new articles before they get published? Subscribe to our Awesome Newsletter.


Advice from top Career specialists


Articles about the Public Sector


Public Sector Trends

Pin It on Pinterest