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Oper­a­tional Excellence

Cul­ture Eats Strat­e­gy For Breakfast



Krish­na Paupamah

Founder/Group CEO

This famous say­ing by Peter Druck­er high­lights this: You can come up with a gold-standard strat­e­gy, but it will fail if your organisation’s cul­ture can’t or won’t make it a real­i­ty. After all, peo­ple are the ones who will make strat­e­gy a reality.

To illus­trate: Let’s say that two com­pa­nies were giv­en a sol­id strat­e­gy to improve the effi­cien­cy of their oper­a­tions. One ran with it and com­plete­ly trans­formed. The com­pa­ny got bet­ter and bet­ter, and man­age­ment refined the strat­e­gy as time went by.

The sec­ond com­pa­ny exe­cut­ed the strat­e­gy too. It gained advan­tages from the trans­for­ma­tion pro­gramme. At least, for a while. How­ev­er, after a few years, old habits returned, and all the gains made from the trans­for­ma­tion were lost. They will need to start all over again.

Why did this happen?

The cul­ture got in the way. Or rather, the old culture.

Old habits can be as per­sis­tent as a stub­born stain.

An organ­i­sa­tion may do all it can to cre­ate a new cul­ture, but if you don’t main­tain the new ways of work­ing, old ways can creep back. This is some­thing I make all my clients under­stand – it takes hard work to main­tain the changes made in trans­for­ma­tion programmes.

The mys­tery of culture

Cul­ture is hard to define and even hard­er to change. If I had a mag­ic pill to change a “bad” cul­ture to a stel­lar one, I’d prob­a­bly be a bil­lion­aire. Cre­at­ing a good com­pa­ny cul­ture takes col­lec­tive will and deter­mi­na­tion, and as I men­tioned, maintenance.

In its sim­plest def­i­n­i­tion, cul­ture com­pris­es a col­lec­tion of habits. But of course, it is more com­plex than that.

Pic­ture cul­ture as a pat­tern of basic assump­tions that a group has invent­ed, dis­cov­ered or devel­oped to cope with chal­lenges, both inter­nal and external.

One of the most com­mon mis­takes peo­ple make in eval­u­at­ing an organisation’s cul­ture is to judge it through its “vis­i­ble parts” such as its prod­ucts, premis­es, the way peo­ple dress, or mar­ket­ing slo­gans and messages.

For exam­ple, just because a com­pa­ny has a recre­ation room filled with pool tables and video games, doesn’t mean that it is a pro­gres­sive place where every­one can speak freely. Recent head­lines denounc­ing tox­ic cul­tures in cool, hip com­pa­nies have shown how true this is.

For me, per­son­al­ly, the best clue to deter­mine if a com­pa­ny is a great place to work is to vis­it the shop floor or branch toi­lets — you can tell an awful lot more about a com­pa­ny cul­ture once you have been there!

Jokes aside, cor­po­rate cul­ture is com­plex and ever-evolving.

An immense­ly impor­tant clue is the behav­iour of the peo­ple in posi­tions of power.

In a per­fect world, com­pa­ny lead­er­ship leads by exam­ple and “walks the talk”, their actions in sync with com­pa­ny val­ues. Cul­ture can change overnight when a new leader over­turns the old way of work­ing. Depend­ing on his or her behav­iour, the cul­ture could change for bet­ter or worse.

And while you can find clues about an organisation’s cul­ture in its vision, mis­sion, and val­ues state­ments, that may not always be reflect­ed on the ground.

Many com­po­nents of cul­ture are invis­i­ble, tak­en for grant­ed, and only under­stood by com­pa­ny insid­ers. These are the shared behav­iours, val­ues, and assump­tions held by a com­pa­ny, and they’re rarely spelled out on a poster in the office.

Things such as, is it okay to speak freely or to express dis­agree­ment? Is it okay to ask ques­tions if you’re unsure about some­thing? Is it accept­able to leave at 5 pm, or is it bet­ter to leave only after the big boss leaves?

Does this mean you need to trans­form the organisation’s cul­ture so that it will exe­cute a strat­e­gy successfully?

Not always.

Instead, con­sid­er the cul­tur­al strengths and needs of the busi­ness, and root your strat­e­gy in it. Does the strat­e­gy play well with the company’s cur­rent cul­ture? Does the strat­e­gy help the busi­ness achieve what it needs?

When cor­po­rate cul­ture is aligned with strat­e­gy, both enhance each other.

For exam­ple, a com­pa­ny that prides itself on its inno­v­a­tive prod­ucts encour­ages inno­va­tion in the organ­i­sa­tion by allow­ing exper­i­men­ta­tion and a change-oriented cul­ture. Or an NGO that pro­motes work­place safe­ty, must ensure, first and fore­most, that its own work­ers are safe from psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal harm. 

In a per­fect world, strat­e­gy is root­ed in the cul­tur­al strengths of your com­pa­ny and the needs of your business

But the real­i­ty is often messier than that.

Design­ing strat­e­gy too tight­ly around cul­ture may lim­it your company’s poten­tial, espe­cial­ly if it is tox­ic and not performance-oriented. Some­times, the vision you want to achieve requires a com­plete over­haul.  For exam­ple, when a nation­alised com­pa­ny is pri­va­tised and opened up for competition.

In my expe­ri­ence, a cor­po­rate cul­ture that does not sup­port the vision of the organ­i­sa­tion needs to be changed. How do we do that? Well, that’s a top­ic for anoth­er column!

Krish­na Pau­pamah has worked with com­pa­nies glob­al­ly to trans­form their busi­ness for over 35 years. He is the Founder and Group CEO of Renoir Con­sult­ing. He can be reached at [email protected]renoirgroup.com.

This col­umn was first pub­lished in Busi­ness Today.


Krish­na Paupamah

Founder/Group CEO

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