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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

Culture does not 'eat strategy for breakfast'

For some decades there has been a common idea that 'culture eats strategy for breakfast', a quote often attributed to Peter Drucker. The quote has been used by large consulting firms to market very complex 'cultural transformation' programmes for decades. A loose interpretation of this statement is that whatever strategy is adopted by an organization, unless the culture is aligned to that strategy, it is very unlikely to be enacted fully and successfully. This is a reasonably defensible position. However, a more bold interpretation would be that culture is somehow more important than strategy, and this is often the implied message when the quote is used.

In an article published on Linked In in 2022, Dr Stephen Barden claims that Peter Drucker never said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Barden goes on to clarify that 'what he did say, in his article for the Wall Street Journal (March 28,1991) was that “culture—no matter how defined—is singularly persistent.” Much more nuanced and certainly less sexy.'

There are people who claim that culture is harder to replicate, it is harder to shape, and it is more of a differentiator in a crowded market than strategy. There is perhaps some logic to this, although it is very hard to provide meaningful evidence for these assertions.

Sweeping statements about the primacy of culture serve mainly to support very expensive attempts to shift a culture even when strategic direction might seem ambiguous, or even confused. I have found that it is very hard to persuade people to change engrained patterns of behaviour in anything other than superficial ways, if the direction of an organization and its strategic priorities are unclear, confusing, or if they lack collective commitment.

More realistically, culture and strategy need to complement and enable each other. Organizations live or die by their strategic choices, which sometimes are so fundamental, that they may require a shift in culture. Strategy could be viewed as an integral facet of culture, or an artefact, a product, of culture. How organizations develop their strategy, how they communicate about it and engage people, how they seek to drive actions which reflect strategic choices at scale, are all features of a culture which is agile and responsive to changes in strategy. The specifics of a strategy and corporate culture are interconnected.

For example, the degree and types of risk which a strategy requires is also reflected in the cultural risk propensity of an organization. But to try to establish detailed cause-effect relationships between aspects of strategy and culture is interesting academically, but probably not very useful in practice.

The best way for organizations to go about developing culture is to do that in the context of mission-critical choices, and conversations about these choices. The quality of these conversations, the honesty, evidence-base, and focus of strategic dialogue, when leaders are often grappling with complex trade-offs, is informed by culture. At the same time these conversations also shape culture. There is a interdependent relationship between strategy and culture, which is visible in the way that the organizations engages with complexity.

Complexity affects every layer of an organization, from front line employees up to the 'C-Suite'. Developing culture is therefore a whole system effort, not just 'top-down' or 'bottom-up', but something which needs to be done in a holistic way. Culture change needs to help people at all levels make sense of their lived realities, and especially the tensions that can create conflict or confusion if left unchecked. Culture change efforts need to be anchored in the ability of leaders and managers to have the right quality of conversations with each other, and with their teams. Human interaction is where the cultural 'rubber hits the road'.

Thinking firstly about culture as both an enabler and a reflection of strategy, while also working on it through real-time problem-solving, and real-world relationships, moves it away from being generic, esoteric, and amorphous. Culture needs to be made visible, something you can work on, and it needs to be inextricably linked to the business you are in, your most important trade-offs, and your moments of truth as an organization.

The first step towards developing a culture while also building the ability to act strategically, even when the environment is uncertain, is to have the right leadership conversations. This sounds simple. In practice, organizational politics, and personal agendas, can stop people from having the robust, open, and constructive dialogue that is required for difficult strategic choices to be made.

So, work on your ability to talk, and make enough time for it. Let's remember that in today's world, talk is not 'cheap' if it is done well and with a sense of purpose. The ability to talk about serious and potentially existential choices as an organization in the right way is work, and it is a profoundly important leadership skill.





For people managers and leaders

Targeted business outcomes: strategic focus, high performance culture, improved productivity, better relationships at work and collaboration, better diversity and inclusion.

-        Purposeful conversations create an agile culture with a shared understanding of

business priorities.

-        Build skill in leaders and managers to have the right conversations in the right ways, at

the right times, with the right people.

-       Learn to be present, authentic, and sensitive to emotional undercurrents while

executing strategy.

See also:


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