Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Here's What Trumps Strategy and Culture

Image courtesy of katerha
A couple months ago, I tweeted a post written by Maz Iqbal about strategy and culture and was asked a few days later by Trier Company to weigh in on the theme. In general, my thoughts align with Maz's; I commented on his post as much, but I wanted to take a moment to share them and go into a bit more detail. (Sorry, I started this post back then and never got back to it.)

First, what is culture? I think Herb Kelleher, a man who knows a thing or two about culture, defines it best: "Culture is what people do when no one is looking." Culture is the set of values and norms that guides how the business operates. Culture happens when we operationalize the values.

And, what is strategy? Basically, it's a plan or direction. It outlines how you are going to achieve the goals of the business. From BusinessDictionary.com: "The overall scope and direction of a corporation and the way in which its various business operations work together to achieve particular goals."

I tend to view strategy and culture as two sides of the same coin. I think they need to go hand in hand; why should they compete?

Does one trump the other? No. Why? Because I think vision and purpose are more important and are the ones that do the trumping!

What is vision? According to BusinessDictionary.com: "An aspirational description of what an organization would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid-term or long-term future. It is intended to serves as a clear guide for choosing current and future courses of action." I would add that it is not only aspirational but also inspirational.

What is purpose? It's your Why. It's the reason for being, the reason for doing.

Vision is where. Purpose is the why. Strategy is the how. And culture is the who and what. They're all important. Vision and strategy are set by the executives, but culture tends to be driven by the employees. Sure, executives need to support it, but this is where employees get to take over. Strategy is top-down, while culture tends to be bottom-up. Culture can't be shoved down your throat, where I think strategy can be. For better or worse.

Vision without execution is hallucination. -Thomas Edison


If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else. -Yogi Berra

I think both purpose and vision trump culture and strategy. They are the north star. They guide you when you're lost. They point you in the right direction when competing ideas are spreading you too thin. Strategy comes out of the vision and the purpose. Culture ultimately does, too, because you're going to hire the right people and set the right stage to deliver on your vision and your purpose. And when you've hired the right people - those who are aligned with your vision and your purpose -to do that, then they'll give their hearts and souls to make sure you succeed.

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. -Warren Bennis


  1. Great post Annette!

    Completely agree - everyone has a role and they should stick to it! The executive leadership should set a compelling, vivid vision, the senior management should align the resources and the broad strategic brush and an empowered, trusted front line will create a culture that delivers in every single micro interaction within and outwith the company.

    Problems arise when people dabble in other's responsibilities!

    1. Thanks, Dougie. Appreciate your thoughts on this topic!

      Annette :-)

  2. Hi Annette, like Dougie I enjoyed the post, but I don't agree.

    Vision and purpose should trump strategy and culture. That is without question.

    But in most organisations I think culture comes out tops, simply because you can have the greatest vision in the world. But if your culture sucks...

    Of course the only way to change your culture is by a relentless focus on vision, purpose and strategy.


    1. James,

      I think you came full circle and back around to agreement with me. LOL. :-)

      Annette :-)

  3. It seems like organizations are often tripping over terms like mission, vision, values, purpose, strategy, etc. I appreciate that you've taken a stab and putting all the pieces together.

    That said, I believe culture trumps them all. Go back to Kelleher's definition: "Culture is what people do when no one is looking." The key to this is: "what people do."

    Everything else such as purpose, strategy, and vision can guide actions, but only if people are tuned into these things. Culture, on the other hand, exists whether you define it or not.

    1. Hey Jeff.

      Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. I like that it drives discussion and gets people thinking about it from different angles.

      Your point about culture is well-taken, and a good one... but in order to get the right people into the organization to create that culture, you must first hire the right people. In order to do so, you would need to find those who are aligned with your purpose, especially, and who buy into your vision. :-)

      Annette :-)

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  5. Hi Annette,
    Interesting post and discussion. The thing that troubles me about this discussion is the idea that we are looking for something that 'trumps' everything else, for something that is the most important piece and, therefore, the thing that we should concentrate on.

    Personally, I don't think any of them are 'top trumps' but they are all equally important and dependent on each other.