“You can choose between having a great culture or a brilliant strategy - which do you opt for?”
They say culture eats strategy for breakfast. As a brand strategist, I find this a really bitter cliché to swallow.
But it’s difficult to disagree with.
If I were forced to choose, I would pick great culture every time. You can have the best strategy in the world, but without the culture to back it up and make it happen, all you’ve got is a bunch of empty hopes and dreams. If you have a great culture, you’ll thrive no matter what fate throws your way. Strategy is rigidly fixed on a single view of the future; whereas culture makes a business adaptable – a particularly important quality in a world where the only constant is inconstancy.
As Mike Tyson says: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Does this mean that strategists should jack in the day job and find something more worthwhile to do with their time?
Well, I’m not packing up my desk just yet.
Of course, the question is deliberately provocative. Few business leaders would be bonkers enough to see ‘strategy’ and ‘culture’ as substitutes – they are clearly complementary. But it does raise an important question about one of the most popular claims about brand strategy: that ‘purpose’ is essential to business success. After all, Simon Sinek urges us to start with ‘Why’ rather than ‘What’ or ‘How’.
But what’s wrong with building a brand strategy based on ‘How’?
In 1958, Wilbert Lee and Genevieve Gore (Bill and Vieve to their friends) started a company under the stairs of their Newark basement with a simple idea in mind: ‘To make money and have fun doing so.’ That worked out pretty well for them. Gore has evolved into a business with sales in excess of $3 billion and consistently features on lists of the world’s most admired companies, most innovative companies, and best places to work. Rather than building the business around a purpose (unless ‘make money’ now qualifies as a purpose), the company was founded on an enduring set of four guiding principles:
- Fairness to each other and everyone with whom we come in contact
- Freedom to encourage, help, and allow other associates to grow in knowledge, skill, and scope of responsibility
- The ability to make one's own commitments and keep them
- Consultation with other associates before undertaking actions that could impact the reputation of the company
Unlike most businesses, Bill Gore created a flat “lattice” structure where everyone shares the title of “Associate.” Associates choose to follow leaders rather than have bosses assigned to them. Leaders are allowed to develop naturally. Gore’s website bears few of the hallmarks of corporate strategy. There’s no vision. No mission. No purpose. Just a set of values and a really interesting approach to how people are treated and how work is carried out. This is almost impossible to conceive of in a world where the vital importance of purpose is rammed down our throats at every opportunity.
Not every business needs a purpose to thrive.
This doesn’t mean strategy isn’t important. It just means we need to be a little less blinkered in our idea of what constitutes an effective brand strategy. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, I’d argue that Rudyard Kipling also eats Simon Sinek for breakfast:
“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”
This excerpt from ‘The Elephant’s Child’ is the most succinct and beautiful definition of strategy I’ve ever seen. It demonstrates that strategy doesn’t need to start with ‘Why’. It can just as usefully start with ‘Who’, or ‘When’, or ‘What’.
And for people who really, really care about culture – like Bill and Vieve Gore – it can even start with ‘How’.
What are Wild Cards?
The Clearing have been working with The School of Life to develop 100 questions designed to help you see your brand from new perspectives. We think great conversations begin with a great question. Each week, we’ll share another question and our response to it. Email us with your own answers on email@example.com – we’d love to know what you think.