Get set for real impact by putting strategy first

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Peter Drucker once said “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I love developing strategy, and I believe it’s crucially important, but I’m with Peter Drucker on this one. Even the most visionary strategy won’t be implemented successfully if it doesn’t align with your organisation’s culture, and if your culture is not healthy.

Similarly, systems are essential. Without them, it’s difficult to effectively implement any strategy, or to harness people’s energy to do their best work and engage productively in the implementation process. Engagement depends on how people feel about your organisation, so this takes us right back to the central importance of culture.

The key point I want to make, however, is that culture can’t been seen isolation, because no one factor determines your success. Strategy, systems and culture are all crucial aspects of the interconnected system that is your organisation.

Organisations are Interconnected Systems

Think about your why, your what and your how as a model for the development of your organisation. Your why is your strategy, your what is your systems, and your how is your culture. All three are important and are constantly intersecting, and they depend on people.

When you put people at the centre, you will strengthen the effectiveness of your strategy and your systems, while also driving culture change. This is how leaders support people to continuously improve engagement, accountability and performance. As our diagram of a people-centred organisation illustrates, no efforts to change culture, or to operationalise your strategy with systems, will get very far if you do these things in isolation from the whole, interconnected system.

Having made this important point about organisations being an interconnected system, we do need to have a starting point when we’re considering how to lead any kind of change, or how to lead your organisation to grow and have meaningful impact. So where do we begin?

I want to suggest the starting point always needs to be your organisational strategy. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what kind of culture you need, or to create systems, if you’re not clear about the strategy you’re trying to implement. So although culture really does eat strategy for breakfast, every leader needs to start with strategy.

Nail your organisation’s strategy first. Then you’ll know what kind of culture you need, to get every-one pulling in the direction of your strategy.

Strategy is crucially important for leaders who want to have an impact, and yet organisations and their leaders quite often get strategy wrong. There are some pitfalls to strategic planning which are illuminated by Roger L. Martin in The Big Lie of Strategic Planning. One way strategic planning can go very wrong is the planners get hold of it, and they focus on the planning rather than the strategy.

For those of us who love planning, it’s a task you can do relatively easily because you put together a plan around what is known, predictable and controllable. But that’s not strategy, that’s execution. Strategy actually needs to move us into what is not known, and not so easily within our control.

Make your strategy purposeful

I’m not talking about any old strategy here. I’m talking about a purpose-led strategy that will support you as a leader, and your organisation, to have a meaningful impact for the clients or stakeholders you serve.

A purposeful strategy won’t be achieved by the leader alone – this is not about you. People at all levels of the organisation need to engage with your purpose. When every-one is pulling in the same direction behind your purpose, individuals can see how they are contributing to that purpose, and how together, your impact can be so much greater.

Developing this kind of strategy will call on you to do some blue-sky thinking, but you also need to stay grounded. As well as a strategy, you need an implementation plan to ensure the alignment of your strategy with your operations. Both of these also need to be able to adapt as the internal or external environment changes.

Henry Mintzberg introduced the idea of emergent strategy and distinguished this from deliberate strategy. Deliberate strategy is intentional and involves making choices about where you want your organisation to go.  Emergent strategy is where an organisation adapts its strategy in response to emerging events which were not anticipated.

In making this distinction, Mintzberg was encouraging leaders to avoid strategies that are rigid and inflexible. Leaders needed to be watching for emerging changes in the environment, and adjusting their deliberate strategy accordingly. The problem was, some leaders used the idea of emergent strategy as a justification for seeing the future as too volatile and unpredictable to make any strategy choices until the future was more certain (which was actually never). In this way, leaders avoided making choices about their strategy. In effect, they had no strategy at all.  

Avoiding this essential aspect of strategy, and failing to actually make choices, is where some leaders lose their way with strategy.  As strategy expert Michael Porter said:

“Strategy is about making choices and trade-offs. It’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”

When it comes to deciding which way to go with deliberate and emergent strategy, this should never be an either/or. We need to make choices and set clear intentions in our strategy, but we also need to be able to respond to events that are unanticipated. COVID-19 is the perfect example. Businesses that could adapt their strategies were able to thrive.

Roger L. Martin suggests leaders should keep a record of the rationale (based on research) for the strategy choices you make. You can then compare what you thought would happen, with what actually does happen, and see when your strategy is not producing the desired results, and why. You can then adjust your strategy accordingly. This is what emergent strategy actually looks like in practice.

It goes without saying that for emergent strategy to work, you need to be regularly reviewing progress against your strategy, a step many leaders actually miss.

Have you nailed your strategy?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast but the first step for any leader who wants to spark culture change is to make sure you’ve nailed your organisation’s strategy. Then you’ll know what kind of culture you need, to get every-one pulling in the direction of your strategy, and what kind of systems will get you there.

So, have you absolutely nailed your strategy, and are you are reviewing progress with your strategy regularly? If your answer to either of these questions is no, you will need to put your head down, start talking to people, and do some work together on your strategy. Only then will you be able to make any real progress with your culture or your systems.  

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Courageous Leadership Program helps participants change the way they lead, including how to create and implement strategy.  To find out more, contact Maria.

© Maria Brett, 2023

Martin, Roger L. (2014). “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” in Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014.
Mintzberg, Henry. (1978). Patterns in Strategy Formation in Management Science, 24, p. 934-948.
Porter, Michael (1996). “What is strategy?” in Harvard Business Review, November 1996.