Monday, January 25, 2010

“What’s for Breakfast? Your Business’ Strategy!”

Many people mistakenly think that the hardest thing in running a business is developing and continuously adjusting the right strategy to achieve the business’ desired goals. While having a sound strategy to deal with competitive pressures and economic uncertainties is critical, it is the process of implementing strategy that can be the major obstacle to long-term organizational success.

Recently a client from the hotel business was developing a complicated workforce development strategy. As the finishing touches were being put on the plan, the team leader confirmed that “we nailed it”. At that moment, I quickly interjected a popular buzz phrase to the rest of the team - “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I explained that this is an accurate and realistic danger because many business leaders develop their short and long-term plans in a vacuum, thinking that the strategy itself will be enough to lead the way.

It always has been, and always will be, the people who must integrate change and adapt their attitudes and behaviors to new strategic directions if those changes will firmly take hold. If you’ve ever tried to steer an organization into a new direction through pure technical or strategic means, rather than incorporating a human strategy component that accounts for the living, breathing, working culture of the organization itself, then you know what I am talking about. It can be like herding cats.

An interesting question about organizational culture is: can we really influence it, or will it simply do what it does? In my work with organizations and their leaders I have come to believe that indeed we can influence workplace culture in meaningful ways so that good strategy has the chance to flourish. The next time you formulate the perfect set of strategic goals for your business, the following ideas may help you to integrate the strategy into the culture of your organization before it gets eaten for breakfast:

Know What Culture Is - Your culture doesn’t need to be a vague or lofty concept. Workplace culture is simply the collective stories, attitudes, beliefs, rules, behaviors, jokes and experiences that are learned and shared by those inside the organization. When it is meshing, culture is a powerful force that helps people understand each other and work effectively together. When it becomes dysfunctional or goes through periods of change, it can be a powerful force that contributes to misunderstanding, conflict, poor working relationships and inefficiency.

Treat Culture Like a System - The culture of your organization is a complex system, with lots and lots of moving parts that come together to give it its unique identity. When integrating new elements to the system (e.g. strategic plans), it is critical to take a step back and look at the written and unwritten rules of the organization to know how the strategy will be understood and received. Some cultures strive to hold firmly to their history and identity, while some others are built around the notion of continuous change. Sometimes the different parts of the system do not see the world in the same way; therefore, communicating context and insight related to proposed strategic change is essential.

Listen to Voices and Give them Choices - It is important to listen to all the voices within the organization. Often there are internal influencers (they could be positive contributors or underminers) that hold sway with the pulse of the group. All voices, despite their potential opposition to a new prospective strategy, should be fully integrated into the discussion. Listening is only the first part of this process, however. Opening up a forum for dialogue and an exchange of views gives people an empowering voice and renders organizational members more likely to support (even if they don’t fully agree with) strategic changes.

Considering these ideas may provide you with a wider perspective that ultimately helps to get things done. Imagine what’s possible when strategic thinking and cultural understanding skip breakfast and just do lunch.

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