Culture eats strategy for breakfast

"It doesn't matter how good your strategy might be - people will be distrustful"

George Anders | Senior Editor At Large | LinkedIn

How would you explain what “culture eats strategy for breakfast” means?


This five-word principle is a jarring but valuable insight into the ways that various power levers work within an organization. (Or don't work!) It's an especially useful caution for outsiders with a big change agenda, who would like to see their ideas adopted on a large scale.

The key idea here is that small, entrenched habits within an organization (i.e. "culture") have a surprisingly large impact on what gets done. Often, in fact, they outrank whatever the official strategy might be, in terms of defining what will happen next. For example, some organizations have a culture of craft. They take great pride in getting the details right.

If you show up as an outsider with an ambitious new strategy, and consistently make sloppy minor errors of facts (or even spelling) on your big public memos/manifestos, you'll lose credibility. It doesn't matter how good your strategy might be. People will be distrustful. They may not tell you to your face. But the odds go up that they'll treat your ideas as dubious suggestions that can be quietly derailed, rather than as the new road ahead.

Conversely, organizations with powerful cultures can win marketplace battles even if they start out with fewer resources and a less polished strategy. For example, a customer-centric culture is a great way of harvesting tips that can quickly lead to better products and strategy tweaks. A competitor that tries to perfect its strategy on its own, without taking in customer input, may have an early advantage that gets squandered when the nimble rival keeps responding to marketplace feedback -- and the arrogant strategist does not.

What do you think about this ‘advice’?


Taken intelligently, it's excellent advice. Not every culture is powerful enough to win against a seemingly superior strategy, and it's important to realise the principle's limitations. But it's a fine cautionary thought for people who think that their strategic insight is enough to carry the day. Not so. Getting a strong strategy is 10% of the path to success. There's much, much more that lies ahead.

Would you give this advice to other people?


Probably not in these exact words, because the strident, earthy tone of "eats for breakfast" isn't the way I usually talk to people. But the core principle is sound.

If not, what alternative advice would you give to agency leaders?


I do broadly like the culture/strategy insight. But when it comes to giving people advice at all levels, the most powerful point I can offer is: "Narrow your priority list. If you're working hard at only one or two goals (and never more than three), you have a good chance of success. If you have more than three priorities, you have no priorities."

Most leaders are achievement-oriented people who tend to fill up their calendar fast with opportunities that look exciting. Everything looks exciting at first! And just about everything takes a lot more work than you expect to get it to the finish line. Don't be the leader who's so overwhelmed and unfocused that you end up being defined by a long list of half-finished projects.

What is the George Anders definition of culture?


I wrote this essay a few years ago about how to identify and define organisational cultures. The key ideas are timeless enough that I'll still stand by the full set. On an abstract level, organisational culture consists of the habits and values that define how everyday work gets done. More specifically, you'll know an organisation's culture by the way people answer questions like these: What gets you promoted? What gets you fired? In the eternal battle between faster/better/cheaper, what's most important? Who's admired? Mocked? Taken for granted? How does your company work through disagreements?

How do you define what vision, mission and strategy is and the differences between them?


Vision is the loftiest of the three, and it's often a goal that could take many lifetimes to achieve. ("End world hunger.")

Mission is a more tangible sense of purpose that defines how we stay focused, year by year. At LinkedIn, where I work, the mission is to "connect the world's professional to make them more productive and successful."

Strategy is the specific plan that you set out to achieve a business goal.

George Anders' bio


George Anders works for LinkedIn where he holds the position of senior editor at large, covering the future of work and writing the weekly Workforce Insights newsletter.

Working in partnership with LinkedIn’s 300 data scientists, George publishes regular insights on topics such as career pivots, in-demand job titles and the future of remote work.

George also is the author of five business books, including the 2017 title You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a Useless Liberal Arts Education.

He started his career as a journalist at The Wall Street Journal, where he shared in the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

Over the years, he also has been part of the core writing team at Fast Company magazine, Forbes and Bloomberg View.

His 2003 book about Hewlett-Packard, Perfect Enough, was a New York Times bestseller.

Humble promo of George Anders


I came across George via a response he wrote on this particular aphorism on Quora.  A considerate and well written response to the question if Peter Drucker coined the aphorism. Since then I've been following George's work and have been very impressed. Most importantly I love this quote featured on his Quora profile: "It's better to be approximately right than precisely wrong!" Definitely check out his book too and interesting perspective on the importance of studying "liberal arts".

Daniel (founder Polymensa)

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