05 September, 2019
The quote “CULTURE EATS STRATEGY FOR BREAKFAST!” often pops up (in big bold letters) on LinkedIn posts and has variously been attributed to Peter Drucker, Gary Hamel (and with more veracity) Bill Moore and Jerry Rose.
It’s an idea that smells good but is difficult to swallow due to the elusive nature of culture.
If we follow the wafting scent we notice that it is the decisions we make and don’t make which are gobbling up our strategic intentions. Even when we can get to make the decisions, they are often hard to swallow and difficult to digest for the wider organisation. But what can we do to protect our strategies from the patterns of interaction embedded in our culture?
We suggest that “decision-making” is the dish on the culture change menu which is most likely to hit the spot. We describe below some of the examples of decision-making in organisations we have recently worked in to illustrate how patterns of decision making inhibit or constrain strategy.
At the end of our post we present “Our Menu” – interventions we suggest can improve decision-making to support strategy execution.
Too many cooks
Example: A professional services business struggles to reach agreement on internal ways of working. Significant time is spent by the senior team reaching consensus on minor issues, leaving less time to focus on business development, quality reviews, and development of intellectual property.
What has helped: Creating leadership roles on specific topics. Asking those individuals to get agreement from all to a general approach, and document it, and then empowering those individuals to make decisions within that framework.
Reject the “under-cooked” opportunities
Example: A tech firm we have worked with struggles to make decisions on new business opportunities. Sales staff bring in opportunities with great potential but many are prematurely rejected as sunk costs and investments in particular laboratory technology only support a certain type of client or product. This leads to very difficult conversations between the engineers and commercial units resulting in sub-optimal outcomes. The sunk cost fallacy (making ongoing decisions to justify previous investments) plagues decision making in this organisation. This is hard to challenge as it conflicts with the pressure for demonstrating investment payback over time.
What has helped: We suggest that what is needed is acute attention on what the emerging flow of opportunities are telling us the market wants and then critical judgements on what decisions the business needs to make in order to respond.
Eat your vegetables!
Example: In this professional services business, the top team struggle to spend sufficient time on organisational matters such as building leadership capability and team development. Professional and technical issues are ascribed with far more value and so leaders are drawn to the meat on their plate but tend to leave vegetables uneaten. As a result, tricky organisational decisions have been put off and difficult conversations requiring resolution are perpetuated, partly because no-one is clear who has the right to make them.
What has helped: When introduced to the RAPID tool (Blenko & Rogers) the senior team were able to put on the table difficult decisions. They then worked through who does, and who should, have the decision rights in order for the business to deliver its strategy.
Example: In an alternative energy business a senior team were having difficulty getting any traction or momentum behind decisions that they were taking which were cross-business unit. When they met, differences were aired, however, the overriding atmosphere was one of good humour and play which perhaps masked a fear of conflict and a group norm around the value of harmony. One team member talked about their meeting culture being like a bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. At the start of the meetings the layers were separated. Through discussions they shook the bottle creating a smooth emulsion of the ingredients. However, following on from their meetings, the “salad dressing” of their collective decision making gradually separated back into its constituent parts. This was not an active unpicking of decisions, more a return of focus to individual business units which let things unravel through inertia.
What has helped: is spending time as a team surfacing and noticing their own dynamics. Working with the playful spirit of metaphor the team have a language for calling themselves out on these patterns so they can see when they need to push decisions forward.
– Be explicit as a team about decision-making rights. The RAPID tool (Blenko M. & Rogers) is great to use for this conversation: it identifies who holds each of the critical roles around a decision i.e. who Recommends, Approves, Performs, provides Input and critically who actually decides. Do this as a dialogue/collective experience, preferably with facilitation, and not a theoretical desk top exercise.
– Clarify decision criteria before getting into the decision itself. This can help prevent the professional culture (e.g. legal, risk, clinical, engineering etc) from “crowding out” strategic, commercial and operational matters
– Don’t fall into the trap of expensive restructuring exercises to resolve lack of accountability
– Be clear on what is up for grabs (on the plate) and what is a given (off the plate)
– Finally, pay attention to who is involved in decision making and notice your dynamics as a team
Ingredients used in this post
Arkes, H.R. & Blumer, C. (1985) The Psychology of Sunk Costs, Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 35, 124-140
Blenko M. & Rogers (2006) “Who has the D?” in Harvard Business Review. 01 Jan 2006
Campbell, A., Whitehead, J. and Finkelstein, S. “Why good leaders make bad decisions, in Harvard Business Review. 01 Feb 2009
Chef: Dev Mookherjee
Sous Chefs: Sophy Pern, Simon Martin, Kevin Power, Andrew Day and Sarah Beart
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