Why culture still eats strategy for breakfast

But there is a way of bridging the two, says the founder of MIT’s Innovation Lab.

by Dave Richards
Last Updated: 23 Jun 2020

Strategy is only as good as the underlying intelligence. Science already knows a lot about COVID-19, including mechanisms of spreading, the fact that elderly people and those with certain pre-existing conditions are at greater risk, and how to minimise those risks.

But at the time of this writing, we still lack some vital medical intelligence:

- Whether affected people develop antibodies, or how protective these will be

- The extent to which the coronavirus will emerge again and again, perhaps in mutated forms, possibly as a deadlier and even more virulent disease

- When or if we will develop a vaccine

- Why some young people seem only mildly affected while others die

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast"

The above quote - probably attributable to the Giga Information Group rather than Peter Drucker, as is widely assumed - reflects the fact that an ineffectual culture inevitably undermines even the best strategies.

Culture is our term for collective psychology – attributes shared by people within a defined group. The group unit of analysis can be national, organisational, or even a subculture based on a group within a group. 

When we say culture trumps strategy, what we’re really saying is that strategies need to engage and consider people and their psychology.

I call this ‘bridging’ between the soft human stuff of psychology (attitudes, beliefs, biases, behaviors, motivations, etc.) and the hard stuff of strategy (intelligence, decisions, crucial leadership focus and direction, measured results, and required course changes). The strength of the ‘bridging DNA’ determines the outcome.

In reality, bridging is never perfect – because humans are not perfect. Therefore, desired results and outcomes are compromised.

Perhaps it’s slightly paradoxical that the human psyche undermines strategy, as well as making it possible in the first place. In our global war against COVID-19, we can already see two particular ways that psychology has at times compromised strategy. 

Through the panic buying and selfish hoarding of supplies such as toilet paper, soap and certain foods; or a non-compliance with guidelines for social distancing, handwashing, and self-isolating when symptoms emerge.

However, we’ve also seen that people come together in a crisis. People are naturally altruistic. Societies rise to meet challenges – especially existential threats. 

The key to effectively bridging psychology and strategy is engagement, which is the heart of the above model. In enterprise strategies, this boils down to engaging people in the formulation of strategy, so that there is a sense of ownership and commitment to achieving strategic success. 

In short, people who understand and buy into the strategy will work toward achieving it. If people don’t understand or buy in, at best they won’t contribute much, and at worst they will actively undermine the strategy. 

As a co-founder of the MIT Innovation Lab, I’ve used the concept of bridging to explain innovation success and failure rates. But I’ve come to realise that bridging psyche and strategy also determines success or failure more generally – in whatever wars we may be fighting – against competitors within an industry, stagnation within a system or enterprise, ignorance, crime, terror or disease.

Let me conclude with a point that all effective business leaders know – love is more important than money. Great businesses create brands and products that customers love, engaging workforces that love what they’re doing and spread the love to each other and customers. 

As the coronavirus continues to spread among us - and we seek to rebuild on the otherside -  we will prevail and become even stronger if we embrace our humanity and the values of love, empathy, compassion, selflessness and generosity.

Dave Richards is MIT Innovation Lab co-founder

Image credit: Nora Carol Photography via Getty


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