The peacock’s story

There’s a saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.* This isn’t true. Culture is strategy. More precisely, culture is the fossilised remains of past strategies – a rigid shell that endures long after the living flesh has gone.

Culture is the set of actions and behaviours that is characteristic of an organisation. Organisations may be formal or informal, fast or slow, ruthless or relaxed, egalitarian or hierarchical. They may prize growth or excellence or safety or influence. But these broad headings are merely the sum of all the many tangible behaviours. A culture is not a series of value statements or aspirations. We find it in the day-to-day actions that go to build the sense of, say, formality – the regular use of job titles, the need to book meetings rather than drop-in, the dress code, the length of the procedures manual, what happens when you address your boss by her first name…

Collective habits are not a bad way to think about culture. “We are what we repeatedly do,” as Aristotle never said. “Excellence [and its opposite], then, … is a habit.”

At some point, these collective habits were useful. They helped people achieve their goals; they were a valid guide to action. They emerged because they gave a material advantage. They endure because they also come to offer a social advantage as well – status, respect, authority, attention.

We are good at picking up the outward forms of behaviour often without questioning the underlying theories or beliefs that inform them. For the originator, it works, who cares why. For the mimic, someone they respect does it, who cares why. The original rationale fades into the background, and we are left with a set of mysterious habits.

To say people are ‘good’ at copying behaviours dramatically understates things. We are brilliant at it. It may be the defining feature of the human species. We are designed for cultural transmission in the same way the cheetah is designed to run. It is our superpower, and for millennia it has ensured the survival of humans in hostile environments.

In his fascinating book, The Secret of our Success, Joseph Henrich tells a tale of explorers stranded in the Australian outback – the Burke and Wills Expedition. Short on food, they were temporarily rescued by the Yandruwandrhaw people, who gave them cake made from the seed of a local fern. Setting off again (after offending their hosts) the expedition attempted to make more of the cake. Despite a ready supply of the seed in the wild, they suffered severe malnutrition. Although the explorers tried to grind and boil the seed, it needed a complex process of leaching with water and adding ash to remove toxicity and make it digestible. All but one member of the expedition died before reaching safety.

For all our brains as a species, we only occasionally use raw intelligence to figure out how to survive from first principles. Trial and error, and the occasional insight, become combined and codified into customs and rituals which are handed down from parent to child and from elder to apprentice. Such proven knowledge lives in our culture; it contains a hard-won wisdom beyond the reach of one individual’s experimentation and reflection.

It is the relationship between culture and status that untethers the behaviours of your organisation from reality. Or rather, culture becomes its own reality. The need to preserve that hard-won wisdom means that showing an accepted cultural behaviour, guarding it and passing it on to the next generation, confer respect and status in their own right. And those are valuable to the individual. After a while a routine no longer has to produce any tangible results in the outside world. It may be like the peacock’s tail, driven to extravagance by the forces of career (rather than sexual) selection. So what aspects of your organisation are merely beautiful but useless plumage?

If you want to change culture, therefore, you are fighting evolution. No wonder most culture change initiatives fail. A few posters and an employee of the month award aren’t going to cut it against something that saw your ancestors through the last ice age.

Culture is the fossilised remnant of strategy. These ritualised behaviours give an advantage to those who practice them. All well and good? Sadly not: in the short term, there is no reason why your current culture must benefit your organisation. Remember, the habits work for the people practising them. They confer status, security or resources. They could be destroying your organisation at the same time. Nobody really knows why they are doing these things; they barely notice that they are doing them.

In the long run, organisations whose cultures do contain relevant wisdom about the world survive. But there is nothing to guarantee that you are one of them, rather than a version of the expedition slowly starving to death as you enter unknown territory. Your habits may be designed for a different environment, or they may be dedicated to games of status. Fossils or plumage.

Please be clear that I’m not saying that people are dumb, quite the opposite: they are doing what works for them. I’m saying that people are smart and your organisation is dumb if you have broken the link between what people must do to thrive and what the organisation needs in order to do the same. If you need a clear view of the facts, but you promote people who play politics, or if you need people to protect long term customer relationships, but only reward people for hitting their quarterly sales targets, you are fossilising strategies for organisational failure into the working life of your organisation.

If your habits of action, calcified into rites and rituals, are harming your organisation, what are you going to do? How can you, as a lone manager, and a participant in the culture, fight the powerful forces baked into human nature?

If cultural habits confer an individual advantage, both practical and ritual, you begin by eliminating that advantage. But even when you have done this, behaviour will be painfully slow to change. Fossils last for millions of years; habits almost as long. Nobody knows why they do these things but they are certainly comfortable doing them. Indeed, because these habits have become associated with power and status, people will work hard to protect the old ways of doing things. The most powerful obstacles to cultural change are the vested interests associated with the old ways of doing things. If you threaten the ritual, you threaten the status of the guardians of that ritual.

You cannot conjure a culture into being with a statement of aspirations, some motivational posters or a collection of noble words painted on every wall, but your project is not hopeless. Cultural transmission is a human trait. The same forces that protect culture and resist change are also at your call to create culture and promote change. You will need to open up a different toolbox, however.

As suggested previously, incentives are vital – people do what works for them. Pay is a powerful inventive, but it is blunt and unwieldy. There are many more subtle and pervasive incentives and rewards at work. These are your full toolbox, and we’ll open it up in part two and root around in the rites, rituals, rewards and heroes of organisational culture.

To return to culture and strategy, there is a positive conclusion here. If culture is a ‘guide to action’, then the right culture can help guide the right actions. It can be a source of wisdom. It is an implicit strategy manual permeating the organisation. And the social forces of status would work in your favour, reinforcing your intent better than any presentation, incentive scheme or coaching session.

Given the grinding pace of cultural change, it isn’t plausible to embed specific short term actions into your culture, but it does make sense to focus on enduring principles that tend to work across a range of times and places – honestly or collegiality, for example.

Breakfast aside, culture is not a substitute for a traditional strategy. It’s a complement. It doesn’t matter how steady your gait, if you are in the wrong path you will fail eventually. At least a good culture might help you realise that in time to do something about it.

* This is usually attributed to Peter Drucker, but Quote Investigator finds no evidence that he said this. They found the earliest exact usage to be by Giga Information Group in 2000, with various similar precursor statements from writers like Edgar Schein, whose book on Organisational Culture and Leadership is also excellent. Both Drucker and Aristotle seem to collect apocrypha.

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