As management consultant Peter Drucker said, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ emphasizing that without supportive organizational culture, even a great strategic plan is doomed. Luckily, culture is malleable, and at Schultz & Williams, we see strategic planning as a great way to develop or strengthen a culture that nourishes a united organization, enthusiastic of its future and roadmap to get there.
What do we mean by “organizational culture”? How do you define something that is both tangible and amorphous? Something that is a shared experience with aspects that can be perceived very differently among individuals. Here’s how we are conceptualizing organizational culture as we have observed it through our strategic planning work.
Organizational culture is the soul of any enterprise, encompassing its collective behaviors, lived values, stories, power structure and expectations, in addition to the other aspects shown here:
Organizational culture is complex and manifests differently from one entity to another.
Consider two entities:
#1: The Do a Lot Organization
This organization has:
- Tenured executive leadership who makes informed decisions.
- Clear while inflexible policies.
- Staff that are results-driven while facing burnout which leads to high turnover.
- A Board of Directors that is hands-off and generally supports the leader’s strategic choices.
#2: The Think a Lot Organization
This organization has:
- Leadership that is relatively new and brings fresh ideas while constantly seeking feedback on decisions large and small.
- Staff that are collaborative and not stressed but their productivity is inconsistent.
- Policies that are inconsistently adhered to or generally unclear.
- A Board that is hands-on with operational roles within the organization.
Do either sound familiar? As in the case of those scenarios, setting an organization’s culture often starts at the top with leadership styles, personalities, and visions which cascade down, influencing all levels of the organization. Still, with intention and consistent actions, culture can also be shaped by staff and filter up to influence the leader’s actions.
How can strategic planning influence an organization’s culture?
ALIGNMENT: A critical component in our approach to strategic planning is studying an organization’s culture from multiple angles over the course of the process. As we assess what an organization does and why and who it serves, we collect insights into how internal and external stakeholders are engaged and the tendencies that shape their interactions which are rooted in aspects of the culture. This leads to developing strategic goals and objectives while taking culture into account in order to align both strategy and culture for sustained organization-wide success.
To illustrate, consider The Do A Lot Organization. If the goal is to be an innovative leader in addressing homelessness, strategies should involve rebalancing workloads to allow for innovative thinking and program development, opening communication channels to share ideas across teams and between staff and leadership, and implementing success metrics for regular Board review in strategic oversight.
ORGANIZATION-WIDE PRIORITY: Moreover, elevating organizational culture as a key strategic goal in a three-year plan positions it as equally crucial as program strengthening or growth. The organization pledges to invest in and be accountable for cultivating a healthy, supportive, and productive culture, guided by measurable objectives developed during strategic planning.
Post pandemic times, organizational culture (or a version of it), has been a strategic pillar for a number of our clients, with the need to come back together in a supportive, unified way more pronounced than ever. Similarly, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has become a core pillar for clients over the past several years, influenced by the widespread movement towards racial justice after the murder of George Floyd, as well increased understanding that an organization that truly embraces DEI sees stronger outcomes of their work (see article by Scientific American and this one by the San Diego Foundation).
In our work with clients, when DEI or organizational culture more broadly, are solidified as a strategic goal, we make sure that the components of that goal area are embedded throughout the full plan so that changing the culture in specific ways is reinforced through achieving the other strategic goals and ultimately making it an intrinsic part of daily operations.
PLANTING SEEDS DURING THE PLANNING PROCESS: Strategic planning is not just about the end goals but the journey to get there. During the planning process (which typically spans 6-8 months), we spotlight and nurture the positive aspects of an organization’s culture and open conversations around how other aspects of the culture are holding the organization back from realizing its full potential. During this planning experience, seeds of culture change are planted, then they grow and take root during the strategic plan implementation.
Some ways to spotlight organizational culture:
- Celebrating accomplishments. Recognize wins early on to highlight and reinforce the strategy and elevate morale.
- Promoting and prioritizing inclusivity and emphasizing diverse participation. This can range from making sure that the voices of those who are not often heard are there at the table, to board meetings, to community input.
- Challenging assumptions. Encourage open-mindedness, adaptability, and growth mindset.
- Addressing power dynamics. Navigate the tension between legacy leadership and newcomers.
- Redefining core values. Make them clear, memorable, authentic, aspirational, and aligned with the mission with a form of accountability.
- Evolve together as a team. Strategic goals should be collective with everyone invested and having a stake in their success.
Strategic planning that embraces and nurtures organizational culture isn’t just about achieving goals. It’s about forging a shared purpose that unites, energizes, and propels an organization towards a brighter future. When culture and strategy work hand-in-hand, it sets the organization on a trajectory for long-standing success and relevance.