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Does culture always eat strategy for breakfast, or is there room for both at the table?

Management Consultant and author Peter Drucker coined the expression: ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ to illustrate that the realisation of strategic goals will be hindered if the culture of the team does not support them. This theory has sparked debate across all sectors but is particularly relevant to the charity sector where organisations often have a very strong and united culture heavily influenced by their mission and vision.

Why charitable organisations have especially strong cultures

Individuals tend to be attracted to work in the charity sector due to an affiliation with or belief in a certain cause, and therefore many charities are made up of teams of people with similar opinions and priorities. When a group of likeminded people are working in the same place, a culture is therefore borne out of the unspoken behaviours, mindsets, and social patterns that these individuals share. To illustrate, it is unlikely that a person who hates animals would choose to work in a donkey rescue shelter. Far from it, it can be assumed that the team would be made up of people who love and care for donkeys, and would put their comfort and wellbeing ahead of other responsibilities within their job description, such as reaching strategic targets and goals. Thus, a shared culture of ‘operate first, innovate later’ is born.

Why strong cultures can often be disabling

There is no doubt that a shared culture is an asset to an organisation and leads to effective execution of tasks that the team actively regards as important. However, it often results in mutual disregard or disinterest in tasks regarded as of lesser direct importance to the cause. In the case of our donkey rescue shelter, the team is united in working towards the outcome that donkeys receive the care that they need, but reflective and analytical tasks – perceived as inactive or indirect in meeting the needs of the cause – are often left to one side. Thus, if a strategy were to be introduced, requiring all members of the team to complete actions such as: data audits, user testing, and participation in discovery workshops, this shared culture of prioritising operation (basic function) over innovation (how to more fulfil the function more effectively) could easily become a roadblock. That is to say, it could result in a team of culturally aligned individuals who are misaligned with the wider strategic vision.

Why we need bring culture and strategy together

This by no means suggests that there is no room for strategy in the charity and third sectors. In fact, one could argue that a charitable organisation with a strong cultural alignment has the ideal conditions to host a transformational project, as the shared culture could be used to increase the chance of success when confronting change or challenges.

Why? The combination of a team with invested interests in the triumph of a project, with accountability on an individual level and teamwork to support each other in meeting the criteria for success, leads to faster and better decision making, no competing priorities, less possibility for scope change and less possibility for the project to derail.

Hence, strategy and culture can be compatible concepts, with the former providing a logic and plan to achieve the goals, and the latter providing the will, enthusiasm, and longevity of results.

In my next post on this topic I’ll cover “How to find a balance between culture and strategy ”


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