The cover story of the current edition of Harvard Business Review by Jay Lorsch and Emily McTague is provocatively titled “You Can’t Fix Culture: Just Focus on Your Business and the Rest Will Follow.”
But if you actually read the article, that’s not really what the authors are saying. In every example they cite of a business turnaround, fixing the business and fixing the culture went hand-in-hand. Fixing business problems had a salubrious impact on culture, but some business problems were caused by culture and could not be fixed without simultaneously changing culture.
There is an important lesson here. While the authors aren’t nearly as dogmatic as the cover title suggests they are (they don’t really say that you can’t fix culture or that you shouldn’t try), the editors – perhaps because it sells more magazines – have fallen into the trap that Jim Collins famously calls “the tyranny of or” – setting up a dialectic in which it’s fixing the business OR fixing the culture.
Fixing culture and fixing the business are complementary activities. It is not the business OR the culture, it is both, what Collins calls “the genius of and.”
And while there are many examples of the truth of Peter Drucker’s famous aphorism that culture eats strategy for lunch (view my popular slide show “12 Reasons Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch” at this link), in the best organizations strategies are devised that build upon the strengths of culture, AND cultural expectations are established and enforced that are essential for the success of those strategies.
At Texas Roadhouse, for example, the strategy of making sure that customers have a great experience is reinforced by a culture of making sure that employees have fun on the job. When these things happen, completely flipping the logic of the HBR article, the business tends to fix itself.
I am currently working with an organization that has a business problem – they have a great product but their phone isn’t ringing. The business problem is that their marketing strategy isn’t effective, but no matter what they do to change strategy they will continue to struggle until they fix this culture problem: their innate (and commendable) sense of humility has infected their approach to marketing. Unless they can inject a greater sense of swagger into their culture, no new SEO, new telemarketing, or new website strategies will fix the business problem.
Think about your organization, or your part of the organization. What is your biggest business challenge? What can you do to fix strategy while simultaneously working to fix culture. Don’t give in to the tyranny of or.
To have a great business, strategy and culture must work hand in glove (culture is the hand and strategy is the glove).