Strategy Is Culture

How you work determines your destiny

Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This is often interpreted as culture being more important than strategy. These might not even be his words, which makes it hard to know his thoughts, but having built a company to almost 500 people, it’s obvious to me that culture isn’t more important than strategy, it is strategy.

I am confident he knew this. He worked with the Japanese manufacturing companies in developing their culture of kaizen, which helped them to dominate the automobile manufacturing world, and their practices have gone on to fundamentally change manufacturing as an industry.

Your strategy is not what you’re trying to do (those are your goals), but rather how you plan to do it, and your culture determines how you work. Pick any great, differentiated strategy, and you’ll see that how it translates the company culture is what determines its efficacy. We tend to think of culture as being about how people feel, or how they treat each other, but that’s a bare shadow of its importance.

Southwest is an amazing airline. In an industry with a long history of losing money, they’ve managed to make money year after year. How? Their strategy is simple: Be the lowest cost carrier. This isn’t something that the management says to the team who then try to interpret it; it shows up in every decision made by everyone in the company. It’s baked into the culture. If it weren’t, costs would creep in at every level of the organization. They could not be the lowest cost carrier without a culture of parsimony at every layer of the company. You will not be a culture fit at Southwest if you can’t be cheap.

Toyota is legendary for helping to drive a revolution in manufacturing, and their success is based on tight integration between company strategy and behavior at the front line. Many of their practices work against human nature, such as their “Five Whys” tactic, which seeks root causes for quality issues by refusing to blame individuals. Their culture is so unique that one of its standout features is how reliant they are on training and mentoring, from the front-line worker to top executives. Managers get promoted based on their ability to train their teams up, not just for driving results. Toyota understands its success is reliant on its management chain to connect company strategy to front-line execution, and it invests accordingly.

Atlassian has built an amazing business, not by being better at selling, but by ensuring the customer can sell themselves. The entire company maintains the cultural discipline of removing barriers to a sale, of asking why a customer needed help, hit a roadblock, or didn’t buy. This sounds easy, but it’s fundamentally hard, and more importantly it’s directly in conflict with the sales culture of modern software companies. You have to choose whether you care more about this deal or all deals, and Atlassian’s rare choice, and how that has permeated their culture, is a big part of why they’ve done so well. I expect Atlassian has lost countless great people who could not make that shift.

These companies demonstrate the inseparability of culture and strategy. Your strategy is how your company plans to win, and your culture is how people individually behave in alignment with it.

Some might argue that the above are the company missions, not their strategies, but they’re very different. Toyota’s mission is to build great cars, and a culture of kaizen is how they do it. Southwest’s mission is probably something like “Enable access to air travel to all”, and being low-cost is how they do that. Atlassian’s mission is clearly around enabling collaboration between teams, which they support by making their products easy to acquire.

If you’ve got competition, then your strategy needs to specify how, exactly, you’ll beat those competitors. You and your competition can have the exact same mission, but by definition your strategy needs to be different from theirs — you both have the same goal of taking the market, but you necessarily will be approaching it differently. If you don’t have competition, your strategy needs to clarify how you’ll win in a market where no one has thrived before. Neither of these is a simple question of setting goals; it’s about clearly stating how you’ll accomplish them.

Too often, strategies are placed on a pedestal, gesticulated at from afar and never allowed to get dirty, when a strategy’s value is entirely determined by how it hits the ground. Napoleon was one of history’s best military strategists, and he knew the importance of how it translated to individual soldiers. When he gave orders, he demanded they be repeated back word for word, and would do it again until they were right. He knew a strategy’s value was determined where it met the enemy, not when it was laid out in the command tent.

Contrary to what you might hear, I don’t think I’ve ever met a founder who didn’t have a strategy, and usually a pretty good one. In contrast, I have yet to meet an early-stage founder who can explain how that strategy will translate on the ground, or who invested hours every week in ensuring that his or her team was operating according to it. Even basic things like having better usability are hand-wavy at best, relying on constant input from founders rather than permeating the organization’s culture.

Simon Sinek has helped lead the charge in the value of ‘why’ as a force for motivation and alignment. Your strategy for how you plan to win is just as important, and is much harder to align a team around because it necessarily involves daily discipline. It’s not enough to have a great strategy or a great culture; they have to be one and the same.

Your culture is how your strategy is executed, and you’ve got to put in the time to make it work.