Culture vs Strategy

More punchy stuff from Mark at fouroboros: here’s how basic it really is. Choice titbits:

2. Understand that when guys like Harvard’s Schein and the London School of Economics’ Maister say “Culture matters more than strategy ” they know of where they speak they mean it, and it it works.

3. Why does it work? If one must succumb to framing business as War, then here’s the translation: Because nobody ever threw themselves on a hand-grenade for a spread-sheet.

This echoes my own mantra of relationships before ideas. Many organisations fixate on their explicit strategy, usually encapsulated in formidable documents. The more detailed they make it, the more likely that people won’t really digest it and they mistake a tired acquiescence for consent. Generally, the author(s) of the strategy get an illusory sense of control from their document, but that may be all.

I suppose “culture” is a slightly pretentious word for how people get along, but I believe that people’s ability to collaborate with humour and energy allows them to create smart strategy on-the-hoof.

I think Margaret Wheatley said something about needing to move from strategic planning to strategic thinking. And I believe better strategic thinking comes when people are adept at thinking collaboratively. And I think they think better when not being constantly whipped into line by a hefty strategy document produced by a clever elite.

A simple example

A while back I heard how the boss of a US hotel chain wanted his IT people to create a system to identify returning guests at check-in. The idea being that the receptionist could say “Welcome back Mr Bloggs” and win points for recognising him. The IT people tut-tutted and came back saying “Yeah, we can do this and it will cost x million dollars”. The boss was unimpressed and frustrated by the cost.

A few days later, he was in the lobby of one of his hotels and overheard the receptionist at work. Several times she said “Welcome back” to people. Our hero bowled up to her and demanded to know how she managed this feat of recognition.

“Well, see that bellboy who carries guests bags from the entrance. I have a deal with him. He asks “is this is their first visit?” and if it is, when they all get to the reception, he puts their bags down parallel to the desk. If it’s a return visit, he puts them at right angles. Then I know.”

The story is told by the boss against himself and as an example of what people can do when you free them to use their own smarts instead of following a manual.

5 thoughts on “Culture vs Strategy

  1. Tony Quinlan

    On the money with the strategy stuff. Dealing at the moment with client – every department’s got a strategic business plan. Except no-one knows where the business is going. Putting them all in a single room and running some open-ended exercises, they’re [horror!] talking to each other. “Oh, but you think… I thought you… So actually…”

    And thanks for the reminder about feeling the feelings – even the ones I judge to be “not good”.

  2. johnza

    Love the example. Great way to drive a problem solving culture too.

    In Hong Kong there is a culture to luxury hotels that cannot be beat. I remember staying at the Mandarin one time, ordering a special wine for a dinner meeting and coming back a few years later to find that same wine in my room. Wow. I will always stay there.

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