Powering Strong Communities

Culture Eats Culture for Breakfast, Too

By Jamie Notter, founder, PROPEL

You have probably heard Peter Drucker’s famous quote, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” implying that even the best strategy will fail if your culture does not drive the specific behaviors that are needed to make that strategy successful. What many leaders don’t realize, however, is that culture can actually eat itself for breakfast in much the same way.

Many organizations anchor their culture in a set of core values. For core values to be effective, they should be spelled out in a bit of detail. Don’t just announce that “Transparency” is a core value, for instance. Include a solid paragraph that explains what you mean by transparency, specifically in the context of your organization and operations. And make sure you include the “why” in that paragraph — why is transparency a value, and how does it specifically help your organization succeed?

After that paragraph, add a list of bullet points that demonstrate what it looks like when employees are living that core value. These should be behavior-based examples that are customized to your context. Your employees should be able to read the paragraph and bullet points and get a solid understanding of what behavior is expected of them when it comes to living the value.

All of that, however, could end up being a waste of time, depending on what kind of patterns you have inside your culture. This is a part of culture that many leaders do not see, but nearly every culture has patterns related to how the organization approaches key elements of culture, including transparency, collaboration, innovation, and others. The patterns are slightly below the surface, and if you’re not careful, they can actually weaken your carefully crafted core values.

A very common culture pattern around transparency, for example, is one I call “lagging transparency.” Cultures that have this pattern emphasize the importance of credible and meaningful information, and their people are generally willing to share information with others when asked. But this information sharing is primarily reactive. What the culture does not value as much is being proactive in information sharing — like creating systems and processes that make information visible and available before people need to ask for it. The result is a culture that definitely shares information but often misses opportunities because the information was not shared at the right time.

I see this happen a lot in the context of customer service. Let’s say something big breaks in the news that affects your operations, and customers are quickly coming to you looking for answers to their questions. Your customer care team does not have inside information on the operational details, which is understandable, so they frequently have to give the “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you” response.

Sometimes, that’s the only answer they can give. But what if you had systems in place that allowed for more proactive information sharing? You could create a series of channels on Microsoft Teams or Slack where operational employees could regularly post updates on emerging issues. If your customer team members are scanning those channels periodically, they will likely have much more useful information to share with customers when the big issue breaks. They still won’t have all the details and might have to get back to the customer with those, but because operations had been posting about the emerging issue for several weeks, the team members knew the issue and the basic elements of it, and their knowledgeable response puts the customer at ease.

Having a core value of transparency doesn’t mean much if you are continuously disappointing customers by not giving them the information they need. That is how a culture pattern can defeat a core value that you thought was an anchor to your culture. So, keep an eye out for culture patterns that are causing friction inside your organization and getting in the way of results, and if any of those patterns are contradicting your core values, start changing that part of your culture right away.

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