Exploring the link between organisational culture, strategy

People management issues: Robert Mandeya

Brief explanation of Strategy

Once a year, often at the beginning of the year, most organisations retreat for what they refer to as a strategic planning workshop.

The strategic plan normally is a manifestation of the resolve by an organisation to deliver on its mandate as well as contribute to its business vision and mission.
This strategic plan is an articulation of the direction the organisation wishes to take its business to in terms of delivery of services and /or products. The strategic plan derives largely from the expectations set out for in the vision, mission and core values of the organisation. However, recently there has been heated debate over what should take prominence in business: culture or strategy? Before I delve into the intricacies of this subject, let me share my understanding of culture in business.

What is culture?

From the little research I did on the word, I would say from a business point of view, “Culture is a balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs that when combined create pleasure or pain, serious momentum or miserable stagnation.” A strong culture flourishes with a clear set of values and norms that actively guide the way a company operates. I will add and say, employees are actively and passionately engaged in the business, when they are operating from a sense of confidence and empowerment rather than navigating their days through miserably extensive procedures and mind-numbing bureaucracy. From this assertion, it can be argued that performance-oriented cultures possess statistically better financial growth, with high employee involvement, strong internal communication, and an acceptance of a healthy level of risk-taking in order to achieve new levels of innovation. Wait a bit! I can imagine some of you frowning while reading this, but wait a minute l am not done yet! Put simply, I would say, “Culture is the environment in which strategy thrives or dies.” Therefore, culture is imperative for sustained success in business.

How culture can enhance strategy

The strong proponents of culture posit that in any business endeavour, “people matter more than machinery, products, and real estate.” They further argue that, It is people who invent and build, support and serve customers in business.

It is further argued that companies are not linear, inert systems. They are ever-changing, organic communities that are dependent on the engagement, talent, and energy of their people to operate successfully. Ignore the mental well-being of your people and culture at your own peril. Step inside of any company, no matter the size, stage of development or level of success, and the culture is either driving the strategy or undermining it.

From research, there is abundant evidence in every industry that the best laid-out plans (or strategies) are derailed, suffocated, or distorted by cultures that either do not understand or straight-away reject the intent. This, in turn, slows, sucks the life out of, or sabotages the implementation or execution of the company’s strategy. For the sake of debate, let us assume there are two kinds of companies in the world. Those driven by strategy, where culture is not a priority, and those guided by a clear strategy where culture is highly valued and universally understood. To help clarify what is important, let us look at the relationship between culture and strategy.

Every company needs a clear strategy?

It is common knowledge that a company must have a clear reason for being and a plan of action. But, you might be surprised by how many companies lack strategic clarity, and whose only purpose is to make a profit. To ignore the potential of a fully engaged and mobilised culture that understands, embraces, encourages, executes and enhances strategy is negligent and a missed opportunity. It is therefore imperative that today’s leaders not only understand and focus on the interdependence of strategy and culture, but also step back and examine their own role — it is one of the most important areas of their personal responsibility.

Strategy and culture

Strategy, at its core, is rational, logical, clear and simple. It should be easy to comprehend and to talk about. Without a clear strategy, a company is lost. Culture, on the other hand, means different things to different people. It is emotional, ever-changing and complex. Culture is human, vulnerable, and as moody as the people who define it.

Every company has a culture

Culture is the environment in which the intent of your company is nurtured, fuelled, restricted, or suffocated. Every company has a culture and its health should be monitored and cared for. Cultures reach their full potential when the people in the trenches doing the day-to-day hard work understand the game and are fully-informed and engaged.

Every culture needs a leader

Like a great coach, a leader’s job is to clearly set the intent for the journey, model the correct behaviours, lead with an understood set of values, communicate clearly and with sincerity and set clear expectations and guardrails for the culture to thrive within.

I conclude by saying, culture is the field on which the strategy plays. A vibrant and functional culture is like a blanket that embraces, protects, and nurtures the strategy.

A company without a strategy lacks direction. A strategy without a culture that understands or embraces it is like a sports team without spirit. What is the culture in your organisation?

Mandeya is an executive coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Leadership Institute for Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw, info@lird.co.zw or +263 772 466 925.