“Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch” – Assuring Your Strategy Will Be Digested

The Rockefeller Foundation’s stellar CEO, Judith Rodin, shared with interviewer Rahim Kanani her thoughts about managing large-scale change in a Forbes online post (April 23, 2012).  She observed that a great strategy for an organization is only part of the picture, noting the difficulty in executing on the strategy: “culture eats strategy for lunch”.  She didn’t benignly say that culture could help or hinder a leader’s ability to execute strategy.  She said that when strategy – the herald angel of change – is pitted against the policies and norms and ‘sacred cows’ that make up organizational culture, it is culture that will swallow the strategy.  If the culture is risk-averse, or treats change as a management fiat, it does not bode well for successful strategy implementation.  So how do you assure that when your strategy is served at the table of your organization’s culture, the digestion process is a smooth one?

There are six ways to assure your culture is ‘strategy-ready’ for the coming evolution:

  • Model change comfort.  Be a model for others and encourage your leadership team to develop a realistic and comfortable view of change.  An attitude of ‘change is part of being in business’ is realistic and calm.  Consider the leader who, faced with a new competitor who was making inroads, fumed and insisted they were idiots and wouldn’t last.  His denial set a tone.  His salespeople decided it was ok to ‘leave well enough alone’ and not provide street intelligence about the competitor’s approach.  It is equally important not to be seen as a change junkie.  Change is fatiguing, and your staff need to feel that your strategies for change are necessary and worth their discomfort.

  • Indulge risk.  The negative connotations of risk always outweigh the positive – and should be given due diligence.  But without risk there is no opportunity.  Creating an atmosphere of exploration of risks opens healthy debate in the organization.  Author Ray Bradbury said, “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.”  The most strategy-ready organizations have an expectation of building wings on the way down.

  • Keep the vision front and center.  Articulate, then repeat, repeat, repeat the story of where you are going and why it’s important.  People in an organization are acculturated to anchor themselves in the mission of the organization, but that is a symbol of the steady state.  They need to continually be re-anchored in the ‘both-and’ paradigm of mission and vision: steady mission and evolving vision – things will change and we’ll still remain true to who we are.

  • Establish a history of successful change.  Pay attention to not just the completion of your strategies, but how they are completed.  Ask for lessons learned, and assure they are used in subsequent change implementations.  Express public appreciation for additions to the history bank of successful change.

  • Build change support systems.   The more predictable the path, the easier to walk it.  Having a predictable change management approach and resources build confidence that the coming series of changes can be handled.  One of the biggest barriers to successful change is feeling like you don’t know how to do it.  Building expertise in a change management process and providing strong resources like organizational design support and communications expertise and feedback mechanisms goes a long way to making big change less overwhelming.

  • Create an environment of openness to candor.   People will more willingly accept new ideas if they can expect two things: empathy with their emotional state as it evolves over time, and an invitation to offer candid, respectful input and feedback.  Building these into a culture takes perseverance.  Natural tendencies are to simplify the messiness of change by excluding from consideration those things that could create additional chaos.  But the truth is, the chaos will hit anyway – and not in a planned and rational way.  Institutionalizing empathy and invitation will help to assure the dead cats are delivered to your doorstep when you can still bury them.

Before you serve up your strategy, take a look at the culture that will eat it.  How easily will it be digested?  Maybe you would benefit from an additional strategy – one to build ‘strategy-readiness’.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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