There’s a loud ring of truth to the old saw: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” However, sometimes, the culture needs to evolve, or everyone is at risk of ending up hungry at lunchtime.

I’ve observed, participated in, and led strategic change that both required and resulted in organizational culture change, and I learned a great deal from my mistakes and successes. One point that’s indelibly burned into my brain is that too many leaders consistently grossly under-estimate the complexity of creating the culture change necessary for new strategies to take root. Effectively, they whiff on respecting the culture and new strategy initiatives spiral into oblivion.

Where Leaders Misfire on Culture and Strategy

1. Strategies are Baked in Isolation and Context is Missing for Everyone Else

Context is critical when it comes to gaining support for change. Yet, in many organizations, the work of strategy takes place at off-sites and behind closed doors with a small group of people—typically executives and consultants. When it comes time to share the strategy, the involved group has been processing on it for months, while everyone else in the organization is hearing it for the first time. Usually, there’s a resounding, “Huh?” often followed by a silent, “What the… ?” They have no context.

2. Leaders Engage in Tug-of-War Change Management

What I’ve observed in too many leaders is that they’ve concluded that a new direction is essential for success or survival, and they persist in believing people will respond as they need them to, just because they are the ones who know how important it is. They end up in a tug-of-war with change resisters and things spiral in the wrong direction when the leaders invoke that classic parenting advice, “Because I said so.” Nothing galvanizes resistance like a “Because I said so” thrown in your face.

3. Ineffective Use of Organizational Values

While active, living, breathing, vibrant values that articulate appropriate and aspirational behaviors are important tools for navigating change, too many organizations suffer from the “values as artwork” phenomenon. They make for great framed artwork in the lobby and on the walls in conference rooms, but the values are absent in the working environment. In other cases, vague, poorly conceived and time-dated or cliché values become tools to support resistance to change.

4. Lack of Empathy on the Part of Leadership

The “E” word for empathy is inherent in all of the problems around promoting organizational change, and it’s the secret ingredient for success. Too often, top leadership fails to consider the single biggest thing bouncing around inside everyone’s head when they’re told they need to change. “What does this mean for me?”

Four Ideas to Keep Culture from Eating the Entire Lunch

1. Quintuple the Flow of Information and Get Them Involved

Remember, context is vital, and John Kotter said it mostly right: “In times of change, you cannot over-communicate.” While I’m taking liberties with his statement, I believe the right version is closer to: “In times of change, you cannot over-communicate or over-involve.

In a related article, I wrote a few years ago, “5 Ideas to Keep Your Culture from Having Your Strategy for Lunch” I emphasized the issue of involvement with: “Bring the work outside of the conference room and get the entire organization involved. While not everyone can attend every strategy meeting, good process management will ensure that everyone has an opportunity at one point to share ideas and participate in implementation.

As for the communication component, make participants in the strategy process ambassadors of “Here’s what’s going on” and “What do you think?” type forums. Opening the floodgates of two-way communication allows people to get involved, share their thoughts, and importantly, begin to buy-in to the need to do something different. Give them control over how to bring new ideas to life, and you move quickly down the path to successful change.

2. Honor the Legacy and Build Excitement for the Next Chapter

You arrived at today’s destination and level of success based on the involvement and hard work of the people in your firm. While the old approaches, strategies, products, or markets may no longer hunt in today’s world, you have to respect what got you here to this point.

If you’re doing a proper job building context for change, your respect of the history and legacy go a long way to gaining support for writing the next chapter. Be particularly sensitive to this issue when adding in newcomers to help chart new directions. It’s common to create an “old versus new” situation here, and it’s deadly to allow that to fester.

3. Bring Your Firm’s Values to Life (or create new ones)

For a significant organizational transformation I consulted on, one of the team members in the “What worked?” review offered, “If we didn’t have values to guide our way through the tough times, I think we would have come apart at the seams.

High-performance teams and high-performance organizations operate with clear, meaningful values. If yours are mostly artwork, consider refining them—with employee input—or, bringing them to life through training and daily reinforcement. Proper values are used in decisions and responses daily, but it’s up to leadership to make these things work hard for the firm. They’re particularly powerful when guiding groups through periods of change.

4. Lead with Empathy in Every Encounter

I’m a devotee of the philosophy and practice of succeeding one encounter at a time. Every single meeting, every hallway discussion, and every interchange is an opportunity to create or destroy value. If you operate continuously with the drive to understand how the other party/parties see your issue, and you communicate from that context, you will succeed. Anything less than authentic empathy will derail your change initiative.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

We often forget that a firm’s culture is synonymous with how people in the firm think and act. The operative word is “people.” While it’s well-established that humans prefer the status quo to change because change is threatening, effective leadership can make change exhilarating. It’s not leadership versus the employees; it’s leadership empowering everyone to design their futures and the future of the firm.

Art's Signature