Culture Eats Strategy When We’re Not Paying Attention

by | Feb 15, 2023 | Strategic Planning

You’ve probably heard the saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s a clever way of explaining how even the best laid business plans can easily be undermined during implementation. In practice, it also refers to the way employee morale and other stakeholder buy-in can affect every aspect of how an organization operates.

With workers increasingly being laid off via email, it’s hard not to think about how this practice might impact morale—and how we might be seeing a lot more of culture eating strategy. As the New York Times explains:

Perhaps the most appalling aspect of termination by email is the asymmetry between what corporations expect of their workers and how they treat them in return. Employees in all kinds of jobs are routinely pressed to give the maximum that they can.

This tension between organizational and employee interests often runs below the surface at both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. But the tech sector, which appears to be pioneering the email layoff practice, has been known for its laser focus on wooing employees and driving strategy.

If companies that were known as “trendsetter[s] in corporate culture” are pushing pause on investing in culture, what does that mean for their strategy? And what can the rest of us, including nonprofit leaders, learn from this moment?


When Does Culture Eat Strategy?

In our experience, culture eats strategy when you least expect it. Sometimes it bubbles beneath the surface for years, only to come to a boil when an organization is trying to implement a major new effort. Thousands of dollars and countless hours are spent crafting a great strategic plan or designing a new initiative, only to have it all fall apart during implementation.

Because implementation is where culture eats strategy.

No matter how many hours they work, leaders simply cannot implement a program or plan all on their own. Successful implementation requires time and effort from stakeholders—staff, managers, board members, volunteers. The more ambitious the plan, the more stakeholder effort you need. And if you really want an initiative to succeed, you need all of your stakeholders committed, inspired, and working in alignment.

Read more: How to Create Buy-in at Your Organization


Building Culture and Strategy Together

While the idea of “culture eats strategy” suggests opposition, you don’t have to choose one or the other. You can strengthen both strategy and culture at the same time. For example:

  • Using Process to Create Buy-In. Creating buy-in is one of the most important steps in the strategy development process. But too often, it becomes an afterthought. Stakeholders are informed rather than engaged. Authentic buy-in requires active engagement. For example, if you’re developing a strategic plan, you might opt to have staff members from different levels of an organization, not just department heads, be part of the planning team.
  • Gathering Stakeholder Input. Understanding what’s going on with your organization’s culture is the first step in strengthening it. As part of any planning process—or even just ongoing operations—consider using regular stakeholder surveys. But make sure that you are prepared to act and reflect on what you may hear. Gathering but not acknowledging input can undermine morale.
  • Leveraging Consultants and Facilitators. Depending on the scope of the strategy you’re aiming to develop, bringing in an outside facilitator can ultimately save time and money. For example, a strategic planning consultant can navigate competing stakeholder perspectives and input. This will help you not just build consensus, but create that priceless buy-in.
  • Remote Doesn’t Mean Invisible. One rationale for an email layoff is that workers are remote anyway. But having a remote or hybrid workplace isn’t an excuse for ignoring organizational culture. Indeed, there are plenty of ways to maintain culture in a virtual environment.


Culture is About How We Work Together

We often focus on the trappings of organizational culture—the retreats and team-building workshops. But really, culture is about how people work together every single day. Every interaction, every project, and every plan is a chance to build a strong organizational culture. So let’s get building!

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