When Culture Fights Back

How to Keep Organizational Culture from Undermining Your Strategy

February 18, 2014

Healthcare Strategist, NBBJ


“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Peter Drucker, writer, professor and management consultant

Let’s say you’re a top company, seeking to transform your operations. You paid a hefty sum on management consulting, and now you have a fresh approach to your business. But when it comes time to execute the new strategy, you find it impossible to get traction. Why? What’s holding you back? Management guru Peter Drucker posed one possibility: it’s your culture.

So what is this culture thing then? For me it’s simple: culture is what people say and do every day. It’s the stories they tell each other that may or may not reinforce what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s the facial expressions they make as you roll out yet one more improvement plan. It’s the workarounds they create to get their jobs done. It’s the five or ten minutes late they come in as some form of silent protest.

Within the larger culture are smaller cultures: in the ambulatory care center ten miles away from the hospital; in the offices of your employed physicians; in your ICU; and in your home health organization. Every place there are people working together there is a culture, and it’s very likely these smaller cultures do not line up with the organizational culture you are trying to change. In fact they may actively work against it.

So you do your leadership rounds and tell people what the organization is up to. You have the weekly employee newsletter. You send out emails. And despite all of that you can’t seem to get everyone onboard. Maybe you aren’t on the same page. As Marcel Proust, one of the greatest observers of the human condition, noted: “In general the people to whom we speak draw from within themselves the meaning they give to our words, and … this meaning is very different from the one we put into them.”

To get a person to say something that reflects the strategy you’re trying to create, you need to get the person involved in the creation of that strategy. Once they are involved in the doing they’ll start changing what they are saying; your meaning and their meaning will line up. The culture will begin to shift, and the execution of the strategy will begin.

How do you get everyone involved in the doing? Start by asking them what needs to be changed. No doubt you will find this easier in smaller organizations, but there are a lot of techniques from the organizational development world that have been used successfully in larger enterprises. I am a particular proponent of Appreciative Inquiry, which holds that all organizations were formed to solve a problem, and the strengths that formed the core of the organization still exist and can be tapped into to solve present-day problems.

If you build on the strengths that are inherent in the organization then culture and strategy will dine together. And the people you involved with developing the strategy will execute the strategy by what they say and do every day. Your organization will move forward in ways you didn’t think were possible.

A version of this post originally appeared on Donald’s blog.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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