Peter Drucker is credited as saying that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. It is certainly manna from heaven for those who love working in the cultural field of change. However it wasn’t meant as an absolute. Culture and strategy, like most things dependent on a living system, are inextricably linked. We can only devise the strategy that our culture can accept. We can only implement a strategy that is culturally acceptable. The way that we devise and implement strategy shapes and sets (or reinforces) our culture.
Often strategy (or policy if you work in government) is designed by a central team. If it requires a really innovative and ground-breaking change in the way we do things it will bump hard into the existing culture. (If it doesn’t, it is in effect, ‘more of the same’.) The follow on is that we therefore need a culture-change to support the strategy. This is doomed to failure and almost certainly the reason behind why, according to research, more than 70% of culture change programmes fail by their own terms.
The way you design, develop, communicate and deliver strategy either reinforces or challenges the existing culture. If you want the culture to change you have to change the way you change culture. Instead of designing a strategy and then thinking of how the culture will need to be different, design the strategy through the culture you will need to implement it.
Too often people try to design bottom up change but leave in place top down approval or abdicate the role of senior leadership. Both of these in their different ways reinforce an existing top-down cultural model. Change is never really top down or bottom up, if it is to work it needs to be across the whole system and that is something you can design in, using the whole system.
Doing the real work in a new way is the key to changing culture, not running culture change programmes.