Does ‘Culture’ Trump ‘Strategy’? Short Answer: It Depends

By Timothy Kist posted 06-15-2018 09:08


I am not certain about this. I don’t know who said this, too many different and unverified attributions. But the author is not the point today.

Strategy has often been touted as the necessary item to shape the direction of the organization. A good strategy actually solves a problem with a coherent set of actions with the appropriate set of resources made available. A strategy is not what you want your revenue target to be next year. That is an operational objective.

Then people started to say that the culture of the organization was more important than the actual strategy. This appeared to take root when discussing organizational culture and Edgar Schein, MIT professor, originally articulated in his 1985 book that “culture determines and limits strategy”.

That makes sense on the surface. However, I maintain that if the customer is not at the center of your strategy or your culture it doesn’t matter what you say trumps/eats/beats the other. You will not be successful in the long run.

You often hear that an organization is data driven. Why data? You should be customer driven! Don’t manage and support the data. Manage and support your customers and employees and the data will be positive.

Sometimes an organization is performance driven. What does this mean? If you do not have everything geared towards the customer you are internally focused and someone else will be leaner and more efficient and you will be forced to continue to cut something because you are “performance driven”.

I read an interesting piece that stated you need to cultivate a culture of success. The author stated that if employees within an organization are goal-oriented, team-focused, and driven by performance, it’s because the culture demands it. Like a garden, left untended, the weeds will take over. Thus, an organization must take care of its employees so they flourish and are not overtaken by the “weeds” you don’t want.

And I firmly believe there must be the focus of the customer at the center of whatever you are trying to accomplish. Without it you may be growing flowers in your garden that your customers do not want or need. Your employees will be so adept at working with their teammates and having fun that they forget the customer.

If every culture was so great and every strategy was the best then every company would be continually exceeding every measure of success. I do not see this in reality. Why did Sears and Target fail in Canada? They didn’t deliver what the customers wanted and their strategy and culture were wrong.

No customer, no culture. No customer, no need for strategy. No customer, no employee.

This principle of customer focus must replace your policy manual. Build your best manual upon the principles of what your customers expect and what and how you can deliver.

And this takes a lot of hard work. And it takes a focus forever. This is not “one and done” training.

How can you accomplish this?

First, with respect to your employees. They care about themselves first before they care about you or the customer. It is human nature. It is survival. It is often driven by fear – lost customers often means fewer employees are needed.

If you can help people bring their best (Coach Wooden’s definition of success) so they can serve the customer you are now creating the type of culture that can last. That's because the whole group understands their purpose and importance to acquire and keep a customer. If you help them be the best they can be for themselves, then (and only then) can you teach them the “best responses” for each situation they’re likely to experience. These can then be your corporate principles with meaning instead of the current policy manual. No fluff.

And this goes for internal customers. Just because it is easy for a department to think of what they need to get done doesn’t mean it best serves other departments as they are trying to deliver something for a customer. Step back and take a look at the whole customer process. Be prepared to make some changes.

Second, and to be very clear, I am NOT advocating that you listen to all customer comments and try to respond to everything that is said. There is a structured approach that begins with, and this is the simple view:

  • Start with developing a deep understanding of what job a customer needs to get done from the functional, emotional, and social perspective.
  • Next, insert your product or service as a possible solution to see if that fits the need.
  • Where are the gaps?
  • Can you actually meet those needs?
  • Can you do this efficiently, effectively and profitably?
  • If not, this is where you need to craft a strategy (as defined above) to guide your organization forward.

There is a tremendous level of detail in this analysis.

In the end knowing the needs of the customer must trump/eat/beat everything and become the central focus for your culture and your strategy.

Talk about that at your next employee meeting and really listen to what your folks have to say about their customer insights and experiences.

I bet you will be surprised. And if you and the leadership are truly listening to your internal customers then there is a very high likelihood that you will need to make some changes to be more holistically customer-centric.

I believe only with this level of customer focus can you achieve the right culture and strategy.

The customer isn’t always right, BUT, they are always the customer and they are the ones that keep your doors open.

This I know for certain.

About the Author

Tim Kist is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC), whose certification was obtained through a combination of experience, examination and continuous professional development. With over 20 years of senior industry management, combined with nearly 8 years in management consulting with national firms, Tim brings together extensive experience, objectivity, and front line leadership. As a national athlete and current university football coach, Tim lives and understands the evaluation, preparation and game planning required for successful high level individual and team performance. He has successfully brought this coaching approach to his work teams throughout his leadership career. Read More

A version of this post was first published here