Culture Eats Breakfast for Strategy

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You’ve probably heard the phrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”; in other words, even the best ideas and logical plans are destined to fail if the people involved are not bought in. A 2013 survey of over 2,200 global businesspeople conducted by the Katzenbach Center – part of the PwC network – found that the least successful change initiatives had omitted culture from their plans while successful initiatives had leveraged their cultural strengths to support them. So how do we ensure that strategic plans are effectively implemented through the lens of culture?

In this post, I will briefly explore how culture should be driving your change management approach, and how certain Change Management models may be more, or less, appropriate for certain organizational cultures.

Organizations that operate with an Agile mindset may not find value in using linear Change Management approaches. For example, Prosci’s renowned ADKAR model – a change management model that defines the linear progression through stages of change as Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement – is an incredibly valuable tool for a broad approach, but for a technology company that practices short cycles of work and refinement, it becomes difficult to apply the linear ADKAR model in an iterative environment – it is possible, but feels like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Similarly, the fairly well-known Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance – could be applied to transformative change in organizations. As a Change Management model, it is exceptionally insightful into the progression of emotions and feelings as employees experience the loss of comfort, stability, and security in existing tools and processes. However, can we imagine trying to speak the language of feelings in an engineering firm that “doesn’t do emotional fluff”?

In an engineering firm with this type of culture, then, what would be a more appropriate change management approach? If we agree that Organizational Change Management is essentially centered around people (and their readiness and willingness to change), then it becomes necessary to understand how a particular group of people prefers to consume and digest new information. This engineering firm would be more likely to succeed in getting a key message across if it explains the logical reasons behind the “Why” and focuses less on the emotional journey. For this type of organizational culture, McKinsey’s 7-S framework may align better as it details the logical components that are impacted in business transformations.

A truly strategic Change Management approach is closely in tune with existing practices and traditions. For example, a team that enjoys grabbing bagels and coffee every Friday morning for an informal weekly review may be more receptive to new ideas in that setting than through a formal all-company email announcement. In this case, you could say that, “Culture eats breakfast for strategy.”

The key takeaway here is that forcing a generic change model into a unique organizational culture increases the risk of delayed implementations, employee resistance, a return to old modes, or even a straight-up costly failure. The point is not that culture is a disruptor or an enabler of change because it can be both – the point is to take into account the norms, values, memories of previous changes, and communication and decision-making styles – yes, the “soft” stuff – in your organization as you plan your change management approach. When a change approach puts culture at the forefront, organizational change can be a remarkably positive and empowering experience.

Tal is a Senior Consultant with Thought Ensemble, who has expertise in Organizational Change Management and Digital Transformation. If you would like to share your thoughts on this post or open a dialogue about a particular situation, connect with Tal on LinkedIn, or send an email to Thought Ensemble.

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