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“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This phrase is usually credited to Peter Drucker – the man who literally wrote the book on management – and has been getting a lot of attention over the past couple years. Most of that attention has gone into the discussion of whether culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, or dinner but really just demonstrates a befuddlement surrounding the context of the statement.

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To understand the quotation, it’s important to think about Drucker’s profession: he was a management consultant. That means he went into well-established companies and assisted in implementing changes in their management, structure, and strategy. Whenever he did that, he was venturing into territories where pre-existing cultures had taken root and – at least in the past – brought success.

Given that insight, his phrasing is perfectly understandable. Any consultant who introduces strategies that fly in the face of existing culture is almost certain to see those strategies fail. But in young companies whose identities are still relatively fluid, Drucker’s cultural maxim no longer holds true.

In maturing organizations and start-ups in particular, strategy often ends up trumping culture. While a business’s founders likely established the enterprise with the sort of culture they wanted in mind, it’s not always easy to perpetuate it, especially if they’re operating at a loss. There can be a strong impulse to execute strategy which is antagonistic to the original culture but thought to be profitable; following that impulse is how many young firms’ cultures are quashed, for better or for worse.

Culture isn’t something that pops up overnight; depending on the company’s size it can take a few years or even a few decades to develop. As the business matures over those years, strategy and culture shouldn’t be in competition; they should be in synergy. The culture should influence the chosen strategies which should, in turn, reinforce the culture. Entrepreneurs studying the self-assured declarations of business legends are apt to take their dictums as gospel and want to apply them with a gung-ho attitude. It’s important, though, that they have the needed perspective. Here’s a business maxim of my own that often – but not always – holds true: “understanding trumps enthusiasm.”

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