Guest Blog by Jonathan Wilson, Soul Systems
One of the myths of our increasingly globalized age is that people are all, in essence the same. I’ve lived in radically different settings over my forty plus years and I can testify that they are not – these include seventeen years growing up in a remote tribe in the rainforests of New Guinea to working with warlords in South Africa to my leadership and strategy work with Europeans and North Americans (I have also studied culture academically). Cultures vary widely in how they view time, what makes someone a leader, whether life is a primarily a set of mechanical problems to solve or a variety of relational ones to maintain, and so on. And, as our European and Asian counterparts tend to be quite familiar with (where their work teams are more culturally diverse), differences between cultures can make it tremendously hard to maximize performance. But when teams figure out how to tap the unique contributions from each person and their culture-informed contribution, magic happens.
Organizational culture is a close cousin of social (tribal, ethnic, national) culture. As with fish in their watery environment, we are rarely overtly conscious of our culture. Nevertheless, your organization has a culture, a very distinct set of assumptions about what matters, about what teamwork should look like, about what leadership is for, about methods, about right and wrong, and on it goes. These assumptions result in certain characteristic behaviours and also distinct skills that are strengths of that culture. I speak in rather simplistic generalizations, but in my own experience non-Western cultures tend to make Western cultures look relationally incompetent, or at least clumsy. On the other hand, non-Western cultures tend to be less interested in linear progress and so have not developed the rigorous systems of innovation and process improvement innate to many Western cultures.
Cultures can also be dysfunctional. I was raised in a tribal community emerging from a long history of revenge warfare in which victims were cannibalized as a way to humiliate and insult their surviving relatives and friends. A corporation’s culture can be characterized by a subtler version of this interpersonal savagery, where people trample on each other’s careers in order to personally succeed.
Which means, simply, that if we don’t pay close attention to our culture – if we don’t identify and name its various pieces, and how they support, drive, enhance or undermine our performance – and we don’t intentionally develop it, we will bumble along delivering sub-optimal performance or even drag ourselves down in outright failure.
Organizational (and other) cultures are like people (they’re made up of people, after all) – no one culture is identical to another. So it is the key source of your organization’s differentiation. A strategy that doesn’t account for and, especially, leverage, this differentiation is … well … not strategic. It’s missing the most crucial ingredient to what enables your company to create unique value for your customer.
Which is why it can indeed be said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”