Does culture trump strategy? I think not, and I’ll explain why.

Even though I have seen this phrase quoted by some very bright people whom I respect, it just doesn’t resonate with me. I thought perhaps I was misunderstanding what was being said, so I decided to Google the phrase “Culture Trumps Strategy” and found that Stanford offered an Entrepreneurship Lecture by this title, I found several CEOs using the phrase in speeches, press releases, etc., I even found a few blogs espousing the mantra of “Culture Trumps Strategy.” Could this just be an issue of semantics? Maybe it’s just a nice politically correct soundbite that gets some good play, or is it simply flawed logic? I’ll frame the debate – you decide.

Since when are a healthy culture and sound business strategy bifurcated? Great corporate cultures are intentional – they are built by design. While I suppose that a great culture could somehow evolve by default or osmosis, I have yet to observe it. Creating a healthy culture is a matter of making it a focal point within the corporate values, vision, mission, and strategy. Put simply, a corporation’s strategy that ignores, or only pays lip service to culture, will be the beneficiary of the toxic environment they deserve.

Even if a company lucks its way into a good culture, I would suggest it will not be sustainable without being part of the core business strategy. Culture formed by the moment will also change by the moment, and ultimately it will disappear in a moment. Back in the days, I watched many a young enterprise suffer from placing culture ahead of strategy, or worse, even focusing on culture in lieu of strategy. When the marketplace began to see through the spin and the vapor, all the ping-pong tables, and funky offices in the world couldn’t save a flawed business model…The fun was over and the culture ceased to exist.

The sad reality is that as in the example mentioned above, culture run amok can kill companies. Many a company has put so much emphasis on the culture that culture simply became their business as opposed to strengthening their business. All the perks and benefits in the world won’t cause a company to thrive if not governed by sound core values, which have been wrapped into a vision that can be strategically and tactically implemented. The business should be fun. The workplace should be comfortable and safe, and time spent on the job should add value to a person’s life. Culture is important – it is very important. But if culture is developed outside of strategy, if it’s not driven by strategy, then said culture can become a very dangerous intoxicant.

Every vibrant, healthy, inspiring, innovative, and positive corporate culture I’ve witnessed has occurred not because the culture has been placed ahead of strategy, but because it has been a key driver of the corporate strategy. Why does everything in today’s world have to be framed within an exclusionary either/or proposition? I’ve consistently found that the best scenarios are the ones that allow you to have your cake and eat it too. Why separate culture from strategy to their mutual demise, when culture is secured, enhanced, and sustained by a sound strategy?

My belief is that those who toss around this nice little sound bite are really just attempting to highlight the importance of culture. If they really believe what they’re saying, then how could they possess corporate values, vision, mission, and strategy that doesn’t include culture as a main point of focus?

Bottom line: I’m not sure that the collective body of those who have uttered the mantra of “Culture Trumps Strategy” actually disagree with me on anything other than how we choose to express our views. Therein lies my caution…I’m fearful that people who don’t have the experience or intuition to read between the lines of a short quote or a 140 character Tweet, might be misled by the simplicity of the appeal. This is why I took the time to author today’s post. In reality, Culture does not Trump Strategy, rather they work together to enhance the success of one another. It’s not really strategy vs. culture, but an aligned strategy and culture that matter. What say you?