The Organizational Development Muse

Culture Eats Strategy

Posted by Matthew Thomas

By Ron Mahurin, Senior Consultant

This post originally appeared here.

Ron_Mahurin_square_500-300x300-818264-edited(Yet Strategy – and Process – Still Matter)

There is some debate as to whether the late Peter Drucker actually ever said: “culture will eat strategy for breakfast, every time.” The phrase does not appear in any of the 35+ books he wrote. In any case, the phrase has become an oft-cited expression in the organizational change literature.

So what is organizational culture? What about our institutional cultures make it so difficult to navigate and make the changes that are required in today’s competitive landscape?

Organizational Culture

Organizational Culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations. These shared values have a strong influence on the people in the organization and dictate how they dress, act, and perform their jobs. Every organization develops and maintains a unique culture, which provides guidelines and boundaries for the behavior of the members of the organization.

In higher education, organizational cultures are shaped by our history, location, our constituent groups, our community relationships, and so much more. In particular, the fierce independence of higher education, the norms of shared governance, the place and role of tenure mean that our ability to respond to and enact changes are exceedingly complex.

While leadership teams focus on strategic priorities and institutional goals, ignoring your culture and the role that informal power plays is a serious mistake. Positional leadership (read: title) is important, but we all know of individuals (and occasionally small groups) whether it be on our board, among the faculty and staff, alumni and donor, and even students who can exercise power both to the good and to the detriment of the organization.

Can we change our culture?

Should we even bother?

In conversations with presidents, board members, senior administrative leaders and faculty and staff, I’ve observed how eager people are to talk about the necessity of addressing institutional cultural issues. Not surprisingly, people understand and define their institution’s culture in a wide variety of ways.

Often, the conversation turns to how difficult that process of cultural change may be. I often find a degree of despair, a belief that there isn’t much that can be done to address change. In my judgment, that kind of response is frequently rooted in negative experiences in the past or a fear of the unknown. There is that unspoken conviction that this kind of work takes too much time and it won’t make a difference in the end.

Shifting our attention as leaders to working on questions of culture requires discipline, commitment, and a willingness to look outside the institution for help. When working on strategic issues, the temptation will likely be to push these larger cultural issues to the side, hoping that if we meet our strategic goals and objectives, these issues will largely resolve themselves.

Questions to Consider:

What is our organizational culture? How do we develop our strategies and resources to shape that culture in ways that strengthen the institution?

Don’t procrastinate. Don’t assume that the tension will go away on its own. There’s too much at stake.

To hope for change without truly identifying and addressing culture will almost certainly mean that Drucker was right:

Your strategic goals and tactical objectives will be eaten by that culture.

Interested in talking more?

Let’s start a conversation together.

Ron Mahurin

Topics: process consulting