“We must pay attention to, and understand, both the culture we have and the culture we want. Strategic planning offers the opportunity for organizations to have a conversation about values, norms, and other aspects of culture. It also offers the opportunity to identify the kind of organization we wish to be, and to create a roadmap for how to get there.”
Peter Drucker, organizational and business development guru extraordinaire, famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Followed by the even more interesting, “Culture eats structure for lunch.” Someone other than Drucker may have said the lunch comment, but I find it nonetheless intriguing.
I’ve done a lot of strategic plans in the last twelve months, at least fifteen. Some took months, with constituent interviews and focus groups and multiple group processes. Some took a day or two. But a trend I’ve noticed in our nonprofits is the supreme importance of culture.
What do you think Drucker meant by “culture” and why is it so superior to strategy or structure?
Organizational culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations. It affects everything from how people dress, whether or not they eat lunch together or at their desks, how people manage conflict, and everything in between. In nonprofit organizations, where values are profoundly important and the mission is the motivator for whether or not people even participate, its safe to say culture eats everything all day long.
I don’t think Drucker was saying that strategy or structure don’t matter, but rather that culture is important. So important that if we don’t attend to it, we will likely fail.
What is your organization’s culture and how does it impact organizational effectiveness?
I’d really like to know. Email me if you have thoughts about your organization’s culture and how it is affecting the organization, negatively or positively. Some things I’ve noticed from my work over the last several years:
•Organizational culture has a life of its own, though it is created by people. Organizations are living organisms with their own personalities, created over many years by the people who come and go, the internal and external reputation, historical events, leadership decisions, and reinforced by norms and rituals.
•One person can really affect organizational culture. For good or ill, one person can have a lot of influence: one visionary founder, one bully, one rogue board member, or one committed change agent.
•Organizational culture can be changed. Some people believe organizational culture is too organic and ethereal to change, but research shows it can be shifted with intention, consistency, and a strong plan.
Is there a principle to be applied from this regarding the strategic planning process?
I think the principle to be applied is that we must pay attention to, and understand, both the culture we have and the culture we want. Strategic planning offers the opportunity for organizations to have a conversation about values, norms, and other aspects of culture. It also offers the opportunity to identify the kind of organization we wish to be, and to create a roadmap for how to get there. It is my professional opinion that organizational culture should be included in all of our strategic planning processes, as well as the final product.
One key to including culture change, or preservation, in strategic planning is to have an open, collaborative, and transparent process. Involve as many constituent voices as possible, including board, staff, clients, donors, and collaboration partners. Get their opinions, but more importantly, keep them in the loop once the plan is complete. Tell them how their input was utilized, and give them the final product. It will help them understand and share the vision and direction of the organization. It will also align everyone to the organizational values and culture. If you are trying to create culture change, it will help everyone know and understand where you’re headed, and the very important role they play in creating the organizational culture you all want.
Laura Alexander, MA, CFRE