Although culture is much more than an “enabler” of strategy, it’s no substitute for it.
Extremely important discussion and I strongly recommend you read the entire article
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” These words, often attributed to Peter Drucker, are frequently quoted by people who see culture at the heart of all great companies. Those same folks like to cite the likes of Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, and Zappos, whose leaders point to their companies’ cultures as the secret of their success.
The argument goes something like this: “Strategy is on paper whereas culture determines how things get done. Anyone can come up with a fancy strategy, but it’s much harder to build a winning culture. Moreover, a brilliant strategy without a great culture is ‘all hat and no cattle,’ while a company with a winning culture can succeed even if its strategy is mediocre. Plus, it’s much easier to change strategy than culture.”
The argument’s inevitable conclusion is that strategy is mere ham and eggs for culture.
But this misses a big opportunity to enhance the power of both culture and strategy. As I see it, the two most fundamental strategy questions are:
1. For the company, what businesses should you be in?
2. And for each of those businesses, what value proposition should you go to market with?
A company’s specific cultural strengths must be central to answering that first question. For example, high-margin, premium-product companies that serve wealthy customers do not belong in businesses where penny-pinching is a source of great pride and celebrated behavior. Southwest has chosen not to enter a NetJets-like business, and that’s a sound decision.
Likewise, companies whose identity and worth are based on discovery and innovation do not belong in low-margin, price-competitive businesses. For example, pharmaceutical companies that traditionally compete by discovering novel, patentable drugs and therapies will struggle to add value to businesses competing in generics. The cultural requirements are just too different. This is why universal banks struggle to win in both commercial and investment banking. Whatever synergies they might enjoy (for instance, from common customers and complementary capital needs) are more than offset by the cultural chasm between these two businesses: the value commercial bankers put on containing risk and knowing the customer, versus the value investment bankers have for taking risk and selling innovative financial products.
Maintaining cultural coherence across a company’s portfolio should be an essential factor when determining a corporate strategy. No culture, however strong, can overcome poor choices when it comes to corporate strategy. For example, GE has one of the most productive cultures in the world, and its former leader, Jack Welch, concedes that his acquisition of Kidder Peabody was a failure because its cultural needs did not fit GE’s cultural strengths. The impact of culture on a company’s success is only as good as its strategy is sound.
Culture also looms large in answering the second question above. In most businesses, customers consider more than concrete features and benefits when choosing between alternative providers; they also consider “the intangibles.” In fact, these often become the tiebreaker when tangible differences are difficult to discern. For example, most wealthy individuals choose financial advisors more for their personal chemistry or connections than their particular range of mutual funds. Virgin Airlines tries to attract passengers who like its offbeat, non-establishment attitude in how it operates