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Culture vs. Strategy


photo credit: BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF

I saw it again yesterday in a meme. “Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.” Really? This battle continues? People, let’s stop with the extremes. The “culture vs. strategy” argument seems as divisive as “GOP vs. Dems”, “Yankees vs. Red Sox”, or “Hatfields vs. McCoys”.


Can’t we all just get along?


Now, I’m not saying that strategy is better than culture, just as I’m not saying that culture is better than strategy. I’ve been in organizations that were missing one or the other; sometimes even both! What I’ve learned is that culture AND strategy are both critical parts of business success.


Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as long as a corporate chef cooks.


I recently talked with a guy who is the Vice President of Sales at a VC funded startup. I asked him what his company did. He initially said it was a big data technology company and left it at that. I dug a little deeper to understand, because I talk tech. After struggling to explain it well, he mentioned a few things that really caught my attention. First, he talked about how they are VC funded, but the funding was quickly depleting and they need to find another round soon. Next, he jumped right to the discussion of the corporate chef who cooks for the entire company every day. Finally, he explained the challenge he has in managing his small sales team is that the platform solution he is trying to sell is not even in beta stage, so he has nothing to show. The company is busy fighting the tech talent wars to hire and retain top performers instead of finishing the product. This is a company that clearly believes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast, as long as a corporate chef cooks”. There was very little discernible strategy I could find from our conversation.


It is not uncommon to find VC funded start-ups who really don’t have a revenue producing business strategy. That doesn’t even slow them down from getting a “cool” office space with coffee bar, happy hour bar, pool table, foosball, catered meals every day, and all the other “necessities” that are now required to attract “top talent”. You know what attracts truly top talent? Money. A regular paycheck. Building something that matters. Not having to let people go because you’ve spent your investment capital on perks. I know I sound like the grumpy, old man telling the kids to get off my lawn, but the entire VC funded, culture first mentality baffles me. Come to work to do your job. Play when you’re not at work.


Pontificating from the Ivory Tower


Likewise, I’ve been at plenty of strategy-driven companies that have unbearable cultures. These are the companies who are so strategically focused that they try to cut their way to prosperity, destroying loyalty, a sense of well-being and any employee commitment in the process. These are usually companies that are singly focused on the bottom line and don’t care what it takes to get there. These companies erode from the inside, out. They are not pleasant places to be. Management is almost always pontificating from the Ivory Tower. Ultimately, they become obsessed with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it is sinking.


Culture AND Strategy are both critical parts of business success.


High turnover and low morale are sure signs that more attention needs to be paid to culture. Cash burn rates and slow or non-existent revenue growth tell you that a new strategy, or maybe just “a strategy”, is needed. In the age old argument of culture vs. strategy, it’s not an either/or choice. I pick both.

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