Does Culture HAVE to Eat Strategy for Lunch?

Design your strategic planning process with culture in mind

Most everyone has heard some version of “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Countless iterations of failed strategic plans, as well as mergers and acquisitions, have proven the point. But does it have to be that way? Can we use what we know about the organization’s culture to start changing it while we do strategic planning?

Oftentimes, the way we do strategic planning simply reinforces the current culture. And if that culture is already defensive, we are probably fortifying those defenses instead of breaking them down. Today, as an integral part of my strategic planning with a client, I start with Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®). I need to determine the current culture, establish why it is that way, and identify levers for changing it. From there I can design a strategic planning process that actually begins to change a client’s workplace culture while helping them plan their strategy. Here is an example of how I have integrated this tool into strategic planning with clients.

A Case of Strategic Blues

In a mid-size public sector organization with which I worked, new leaders needed a strategic plan to deal with increasing demand for its services, staff turnover, and highly public incidents regarding safety. The only problem was that “strategic planning” had a bad name and no one wanted to do it.

We did a limited culture study to find out what was going on, surveying those in management and supervisory positions since they were responsible for planning. We also conducted focus groups and interviews of managers and supervisors at each level of the organization.

The organizational culture survey showed that, with one exception (a division that was the farthest from the main office!), the overall culture was highly Passive/Defensive, with Avoidance being a core theme.1 Through the focus groups and interviews, we learned that managers at all levels felt beaten up by the punitive practices of a past administrator, especially in planning checkpoints where they would be publicly shamed. In addition, there was great fear of making a wrong decision, which translated into pushing decisions up to the highest levels of the organization. Unfortunately, people at that level did not want to make the decisions either, which translated into most decisions being made in crisis mode.

The cultural assessment was sobering to say the least. After presenting the results to the client, they agreed that they were NOT ready to do strategic planning—yet! In designing a process for them, we needed to help them model effective decision making. They wanted high engagement, and yet at the same time needed to learn how to drive the process constructively to implementation.

We helped them get ready to plan by: (1) describing and committing to a “From-To” organizational culture shift; (2) clarifying their leadership/management roles and responsibilities; and (3) clarifying their decision-making structure. That took three months to complete. As part of this effort, they restructured the leadership team into an executive team and an operational leadership team to more effectively address the issues faced by the organization.

To begin strategic planning, the executive team was tasked with drafting the mission and operating principles of the organization and then working constructively with the operational leadership team to shape it. Over the next eight months, the rest of the organization was invited into the planning process.

  • We facilitated a large group meeting of 100+ people over 1 ½ days in which all divisions and levels of management were represented. The purpose was to:
    • Develop a shared understanding of current reality
    • Create a shared vision for the organization
    • Get reaction to the “From-To” Cultural Shift and the Operating Principles
    • Identify 3-4 overarching goals and potential strategies
  • The executive team took the input from that large group session and refined it. Over the next month, all those involved in the large group meeting worked with the leaders to communicate a joint strategic direction throughout the organization.
  • Then, each division was tasked with developing its own implementation plan congruous with the organization’s goals, in a highly engaged manner. We trained and supported internal facilitators to assist this effort, and almost a third of the organization was involved one way or another in strategic and tactical conversations and planning.
  • A new checkpoint process was developed to focus on linking efforts and learning across the organization and communicating and celebrating progress.
  • The operational leadership team became responsible for identifying, sponsoring, and supporting cross-functional work with executive support.
  • I am happy to report that 18 months into implementation, people seem energized by their goals and they are making progress. The organization is planning to carry out a follow-up culture study next year for the entire organization and will use those results to help shape the process to update their goals and strategies.


Without conducting a cultural assessment up front, we could have only guessed at the organizational dynamics. Having a cultural assessment gave us the information we needed to:

  • Avoid reinforcing defensive cultural styles (which is easy to do inadvertently)
  • Focus on facilitating new experiences that build the culture they wanted

In other words, we now knew what to target and could design planning processes to support “shared learning and mutual experiences,” which Edgar Schein calls the key to culture change. None of this would have worked, however, without the total commitment of the top leader in this effort.

How Do You “Sell” a Cultural Assessment?

I have often been asked how I “sell” a cultural assessment. The reality is, I don’t—I just include it in my strategic planning work as “step one.” If I get push-back, I remind clients about the opening line of this article and watch their heads nod up and down.

That said, I will tailor the cultural assessment based on planning objectives and financial resources. For example, if desired, we can also measure how the organization’s customers experience them with a companion tool from Human Synergistics. The Customer ServiceStyles™ (CSS) survey provides an organization with information about how the culture inside impacts their customers outside.

I have been working with Human Synergistics’ culture tools for more than 20 years and can honestly say theirs are the best tools in the industry. If you want reliable information built on solid research that validates clients’ experiences and gives you the levers for change, these are the tools to use. The rest is up to you!



1 The terminology is from Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., Organizational Culture Inventory® and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Human Synergistics International, Plymouth, MI. Copyright © 1987-2007. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Organizational Courage, Part 2 of 2 – How to Build It

What does organizational courage demand?

In part one of my two-part post, I introduced the notion of organizational courage and shared my thoughts on what it is and provided some framing. In this post I will share practical strategies and action steps you can take to build courage within your organization. 

As we know, the root for bravery is medieval French (“brave” meaning “splendid, valiant”) and medieval Italian (“bravo,” which originally meant “bold, wild, or savage”), and one could get the idea that bravery is all about show—and that drama, outward appearances, and public approval are important aspects of bravery. However, the root for courage is the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart.” So, courage is about doing what is closest to the heart—in other words, what is important and gives us life.

The motive for courage is what makes it special; the role of courage is to make our vision and values real. Hence, I define organizational courage as the will to act in the face of fear or despair in order to enhance constructive and human growth.

Courage demands a personal vs. unexamined commitment1

When an organization simply “sells” the vision and “socializes” employees, it does not foster a personal commitment to deeper values and meaning. The introspection needed to personally commit to an action or idea is not performed by the vast majority of people and is not encouraged in organizational life. If one does take the time to reflect on the deeper meaning of an issue, the resulting values and actions will often fly in the face of currently established norms. Courageous people raise questions that others would not even think to ask. Remember the management team mentioned in part one of this blog post? What each of them struggled with was personal commitment—for the first time, they were faced with examining the meaning of the vision and the potential impact on their lives.

Courage demands being centered in values and vision

In many organizations, the vision and values, if stated, are rhetoric nicely framed on the wall or stuck in desk drawers and hauled out once a year for the annual report. Being “centered” in the vision and values means being continually focused and in dialog about them throughout the organization and, therefore, ensuring that they truly drive the organization’s day-to-day operating culture.

Courage means facing fears, living with anxiety, and letting go of results

I have watched people at every level of an organization wait patiently to “be empowered” from above, including a president who wanted to “be empowered” by the board. Courage is the power in empowerment.

When we strive to create our vision, the results aren’t predictable. To worry and obsess about them and try to control the outcome of our efforts before we even start will paralyze us. Unfortunately many organizational processes not only encourage but promote this “analysis paralysis” and penalize heavily for mistakes made along the way.

How do you build organizational courage?

Wherever you are in the organization

Empower yourself first. 

It is critical to clarify your own vision and values before signing up for someone else’s. Most adults have not thought about their values since they were teenagers, and yet our personal values shape our actions and responses to life. No matter where you are in an organization, you need to know what you stand for first. Then you can decide if the vision and values espoused by the organization are something you want to embrace. There will be no joy in working for an organization that you cannot fundamentally support. If vision and values have not been clarified or are out of focus, you have an opportunity to help shape them.

Start working in your “own backyard.” No matter if you run a business, manage a department of 70, or simply manage your own desk, you can start to create the kind of organization in which you want to work. Are you committed to providing stellar customer service? Then start giving it to everyone for whom you work and who works for you, rather than complain about poor service from others. By doing so, you will become much more centered in what customer service means, and by your actions you will begin to show others how to follow suit. You can start a multiplier effect simply by acting on the vision and values to which you are committed, and have a powerful impact on the organization without needing a fancy title or positional authority.

Help the organization find its touchstones and anchors.

An organization’s vision, mission, and values are its core, its anchors during turbulent times. They reflect our highest call to make a difference, feel useful, and be part of a successful and worthwhile organization—but we need to translate that call to everyday action, and sometimes we need help in doing that. A touchstone is a symbol, idea, mental picture, or story that brings us back to what’s important, to rapidly call us back to the vision and values when we seem adrift and confused. No matter where you are in the organization, you can help people define their touchstones and enrich the culture with stories and symbols that provide guidance during difficult times.

As an executive or manager

Examine and acknowledge your own fears first.2

When working with the concept of organizational courage, it’s important that we start with ourselves first. Fear is a normal human emotion. It can be rational or irrational—it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that suppressing it makes it grow because we’ve never brought it into the light for a good, hard examination. So we just continue to feed the fear and justify its existence.

What are executives and managers afraid of? Beyond the obvious business and personal survival fears, common fears are those of not being good enough, not being needed, losing control, disappointing others, and being “found out” (that one isn’t as good as he/she projects). What’s interesting about fear is that it makes us all believe that we are the only people who have this problem.

Before you can help your employees move past their fears, you must work on yourself first. This requires probing gently and honestly into the depths of your own fears. One technique is to map them down to the deepest possible level and examine what you are really afraid of and why.

Look at what you do that communicates or reinforces fear.

Executives especially can look totally impenetrable to the rest of the organization. Human frailties are masked over by position and title. If you have a strong personality, as most entrepreneurs do, your mere presence can intimidate people and your slightest comment taken as a firm command or reprimand to the affected parties. You may not even know what you do that strikes fear into the hearts of your employees, but fear you they will. So it is up to you to understand how you come across, show your own humanity, and change your behavior. Do you bark orders at your staff? Do you find only mistakes in the work presented to you and forget to praise their efforts? Do you constantly remind them, even in subtle ways, who pays the bills and what they can do if they don’t like it there? Do you shame them for making mistakes? You probably have legitimate concerns about your business, but how you communicate them will dictate the level of fear in your organization.

Help your organization to name and acknowledge its fears.

A lot of fear in organizations is caused by events—mergers, acquisitions, economic downturns, technical innovations, job changes, lawsuits, layoffs, etc. It is critical to get people to verbalize their fears and understand that it’s normal and OK to be afraid. How we act on our fears is what’s important.

Talk to your employees about your own fears and your own choices based on your vision and current reality. Ask them to share theirs. Acknowledge that it is a fearful time and that it is OK to be afraid. Remind them that fear is a normal emotion and that courage means walking with fear, not being fearless.

Give your employees as much information as possible about current reality—even if the outlook is not great. Holding out on them only feeds their fears because they will be convinced that the situation is worse than it is and act accordingly. Treat your employees like adults who can take care of themselves versus children that you need to protect, and you will get a workforce who act like adults.

Organizational courage is attainable,
but it’s an inside-out job!

Be personally courageous—modeling courage is the best way to promote it.3

Do you have a management team that can’t seem to get the courage to do what needs to be done? Then you need to show them. Be voracious in your quest to acknowledge and embrace current reality: request and listen to feedback, get a variety of views, challenge your own filters, and admit your own fears. In front of your team, choose and re-choose your vision every day. Every meeting, ask what you need to do, that day, to help realize the vision. Then do it…and let go. 4

Even if the results of your actions are not seen on a daily basis, employees watching you be honest with yourself (and them) and then take appropriate action in spite of fear will be called to act a little more courageously themselves. True courage shines like a beacon and lifts up our spirits, reminding us that we are bound to each other in common humanity.

Organizational courage is an elusive, yet wondrous power. It is a quality that is critical to giving our lives and organizations meaning, and to move us through the upheaval of modern day. Organizational courage is attainable, but it’s an inside-out job!

What are your thoughts and what would you add to this topic? I welcome and look forward to your comments on LinkedIn and Twitter.

[Editor’s note: This blog post was adapted from an article written by Cathy and published in Minnesota Ventures, Oct. 1991; it was republished in the Minnesota Ventures Growth Guide, May 1993; and has been updated for this blog, March 2016.]


1Walston, S. F. (2010, July 10). Awakening Courageous Leadership. Retrieved from

2Taylor, J. (2009, October 21). Business: Why Change is So Hard, and How to Make it Easier. Retrieved from

3Tardanico, S. (2015, January 13). 10 Traits of Courageous Leaders. Retrieved from

4Klein, M., & Napier, R. (2003).  Transform The Courage to Act:  5 Factors of Courage to Business. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.

Organizational Courage, Part 1 of 2 – What It Is

On a recent bright Minnesota morning, tucked into one of the thousands of conference rooms across the state, a management team sat somberly. Several weeks earlier they had participated in a meaningful retreat with key employees and clients, rediscovering and clarifying their vision, values, and goals for the organization. Spirits were high that day and energy seemed to crackle as it moved about the room, fueled by the vision of what they wanted to create. Now, however, new developments in corporate politics made the vision seem nigh on impossible, and the group was about to surrender in defeat, once again melting into the mediocrity of organizational bureaucracy.

Finding personal courage is hard enough, but what happens when an entire organization needs courage?1 Courage is the will to act in spite of fear or despair, for the purpose of human growth. Fostering organizational courage is difficult but the key lies in being true to vision and values while at the same time embracing current reality, despair, and fears.


What takes courage in an organization?

Facing and naming current reality

This sounds simple, but it is extremely difficult to be honest about current reality.2 Truth hurts sometimes, and therefore we have all developed filters that remove the unpleasant parts, especially if we are party to their creation. When these filters are institutionalized, they can blind everyone in an organization to what is really going on, both internally and externally, with markets and management and finances. When people in organizations deny their reality, it also makes asking for help nearly impossible—if done, it is usually under duress while blaming others and too late for anything other than a crisis intervention.

Institutionalized filters can take many forms:

  • executives who only want to hear good news and are threatened by negative results,3
  • management reporting systems that report on the wrong things,
  • bureaucracies that distort and fragment information,
  • a general intolerance and/or misuse of feedback, and
  • procedures and processes designed to “channel” information and omit what doesn’t “fit” from the agenda.

In one large corporation, the president had been so sheltered from employees and the organization in such turmoil that employees themselves started communicating horizontally via an unauthorized media platform about their concerns, feelings, and perceptions about what was happening. Upper management found out about it and planned to take action to ensure this would never happen again, but the president “stayed the execution” and silently monitored the feedback. In another organization, where the business was headed south, the division controller was told that it would be political suicide to forecast anything other than a “make” on year end numbers.

It takes courage to tell people, as openly and caringly as possible, what they may not want to hear. As an employee, it takes even more courage to give that feedback, because all too often you can be “shot” or written off as a whiner, a troublemaker, or—worse yet—a poor performer.

It’s much easier to live in a fantasy world and pretend that everything is OK and under our control. The latter is especially important in traditional management, whose function is dedicated to plan, organize, measure, and control. The underlying assumption is that we have control over the world around us, when we really don’t. The only control we have is over our own actions.

Living values and vision

No matter where you are in an organization, there is risk involved in living values and vision.4 Granted, it is easier for an executive to demand accountability from others in this, but he or she must also live the vision and values and be willing to be held accountable for them. It takes courage to tell people what you believe in, ask to be challenged if you do not live up to it, and then really listen when someone gives you feedback!

In one example, a merger of two companies was heralded with much fanfare, and the new executive team made a point of creating and sharing their vision and values with the new organization. It was an uplifting experience, beautifully done. They used all the right words, and the pride and hope on people’s faces was evident. What a pity that the executives did not hold themselves accountable to their values for superior customer service and quality;  it showed in how they managed and treated their people, who they even referred to as “the help.” Within three months, anger and bitterness replaced the hope and pride as people felt confused and misled. Needless to say, customer service and quality declined.

Making choices and setting priorities

Especially in an age of “Do it all, now!,” it takes courage to set priorities and make strategic choices. Just the act of telling your boss, your customers, your employees, or your constituents that you are going to focus your attention on several key issues (as opposed to the normal slateful) is difficult. Doing it is even harder. We are used to hearing ourselves and others talk about priorities, and then get distracted with a myriad of other issues that seem easier or safer or more immediate. Meanwhile, the “priorities” continue to water down until even reciting them becomes a joke. Maintaining focus takes courage, because it means making choices about how to spend your time and energy, often in new and different ways, and not everyone may be happy with the choices.

Sustaining spirit

How often have you felt beaten down by “the system?” I have heard employees, managers, and CEOs from the same company lament their powerlessness to deal with “the system.” That is because it takes an incredible amount of energy to overcome systemic barriers that are actually organic in nature—they fuel their own growth. After a while it takes too much effort to be creative, and even organizational “champions” lose their spirit. The key lies not in pushing harder but in finding the leverage points necessary to create change. But it takes real courage to find the energy to do this when what you feel is complete despair that anything will help.

Facing fears

Fear is a “four-letter word” in organizational life. We don’t want to talk about it, and we deny we even feel it. We’ve been taught all our lives not to be afraid, so to admit fear is to admit weakness and failure, and the last place we want to do that is in our jobs or businesses!

Yet fear feeds on itself and grows in darkness; it can ultimately paralyze an entire organization. Fear is normal and OK to have. Courage means walking with fear. Naming and embracing the fears that you and others have about your organization or your future is vitally important. Until fear is brought into the open, it takes control of us and we cannot make appropriate choices. If we can acknowledge our fear, it loses its grip and we can choose to progress despite it.

What is Organizational Courage?

More than bravery

It is possible to be brave without being courageous. If you work long, hard hours and do what the culture expects, you might well be lauded for your heroics. At the same time, will you have really made a difference?

The root for bravery is medieval French (“brave” meaning “splendid, valient”) and medieval Italian (“bravo,” which originally meant “bold, wild, or savage”). One quickly gets the notion that bravery is all about show—and that drama, outward appearances, and public approval are important aspects of bravery—whereas the root for courage is the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart.” So courage is about doing what is closest to the heart—in other words, what is important and gives us life. The motive for courage is what makes it special.

I define organizational courage as the will to act in the face of  fear or despair in order to enhance constructive and human growth. It means that you have a genuine concern for the development of human and organizational potential with an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all living things. Organizations are nothing more than people linked together by a web of activity toward a common end. We organize because we want to accomplish something. And when that “something” beckons us to reach beyond ourselves and join together to create something worthy of us, it is called a vision. The role of courage is to make our vision and values real.

How do you build organizational courage? 

In part two of my blog post titled, “Organizational Courage, How to Build It,” I will share practical strategies and immediate action steps you can take starting tomorrow to build courage within your organization!

[Editor’s note: This blog post was adapted from an article written by Cathy and published in Minnesota Ventures, Oct. 1991; it was republished in the Minnesota Ventures Growth Guide, May 1993; and has been updated for this blog, April 2016.]


1Perme, C. (1998, November). From the Heart. Retrieved from

2Perme, C. (2015, July 23). Organizational Culture: The Memory of an Elephant. Retrieved from

3Kanter, R. M. (2011, December). Courage in the C-Suite. Retrieved from

4Beilke, S. (2016, February 23). Culture Creep: The Impact on Business Results. Retrieved from

Organizational Culture: The Memory of an Elephant

A number of years ago, I got a call from a CEO of a high-tech firm that was having difficulty executing strategy. According to him, every fall the executive team went off on a high-powered retreat to do strategic planning, only to come back a year later with very little of it having been accomplished. At this point the market was catching up with them, and they needed to be much more nimble and innovative to compete. After several years of trying different facilitators, the CEO began to realize that perhaps the problem was with them. And perhaps it had to do with their culture.

How enlightened, I thought! It is wonderful to work with a leader who has the courage to explore the impact of culture on his or her organization. We talked about how to set up the project. He was concerned about the effectiveness of his management team and wanted to know what was preventing the execution of strategy in his company. He also said that he wanted to look at different geographic locations, as some were doing much better than others. He wanted to know if it was something about culture in those locations that was driving different business results.

Getting to the Root of Culture

We agreed to survey everyone in the company with the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®)1 and break out results by management level and also by location. In addition, I conducted focus groups with employees and one-on-one interviews with managers and executives to gather qualitative data after the surveys were conducted, but before I got the survey results.

Whoa! What I learned through the interviews was that the CEO was what is known as a “screamer,” or a leader who was verbally abusive to his staff. Although I had never experienced this personally, I had learned about the impact this can have on an organization in The Courageous Follower2 by Ira Chaleff.

The survey results bore this out. Not only was the current culture highly Passive/Defensive; the culture at the management levels was even more so. The executive team alone was almost at the 90th percentile for an Avoidance culture. That meant that people were afraid to take risks and avoided situations and opportunities where they might be blamed if something went wrong.

No wonder they could not execute strategy! Everyone was concerned that they would get their head bitten off—especially the managers and executives, who tried to protect their employees from the worst of the CEO’s behavior. And the locations doing the best? Those were small offices with no managers on-site, led by self-managed teams of engineers.

The Memory of an Elephant

I knew that I had a difficult conversation ahead of me. Already the CEO was gunning for the managers whom he felt were not doing their jobs. Looking at the culture maps, he might assume that they were responsible for creating this culture, when in fact, this was the culture they experienced.

I thought hard about how to provide this feedback to the CEO, and screwed up my courage to talk to him about it. “I understand that you have an anger-management problem,” I said, as I anticipated fireworks raining down on my own head. “Oh,” he said very calmly, “I used to.” What? “I have been seeing a therapist for more than two years, and have really come a long way. The last time I had an outburst was over eight months ago. I really don’t do that anymore.”

Well, well. Although his recent behavior might have changed, like an elephant, culture itself has a long memory. People were still waiting for the “next shoe to drop;” managers were protecting themselves and their staff from potential wrath. It would take time to change these expectations. It would also require big doses of openness and vulnerability on the part of the CEO in order to rebuild trust, and courage from the management team to challenge and redirect behavior.

Strengthening Connections

I recommended and helped them hire a full-time internal organizational development consultant for a year-long intensive. That person would assist the organization in embracing more constructive behavior and practices, working not only with the CEO and managers as a coach, but also with employees. They needed to strengthen connections and engagement if the company was going to succeed. The internal consultant implemented two things immediately: 1) one-on-one coaching with the CEO and the members of the executive team; and 2) collaborative work to develop clear project charters that articulated the authorities and limitations of the work team, as a big issue was that teams were often surprised at the end by vetoes of their work or criticism for not having done something that was expected of them (of which they did not know).

The net result? Fifteen years later, this company is still in business, with a strategic niche in the software and services marketplace, and the same CEO is still at the helm!

If you’re thinking about assessing your workplace culture, here’s what I can share:

  1. Don’t do this alone: Find a reputable consultant with experience in assessing and executing culture change.
  2. Assess! You need to take off the “rose-colored glasses” that you may have about your own culture and get information that will really help you change it. A valid and reliable assessment that measures your organization’s culture and benchmarks it against others will give you the information you need to make changes and start down the path.
  3. Involvement: Get your leadership team involved from the get-go. The organization needs to know that all its leaders are on board in order to take the effort seriously.
  4. Allow time: It takes 8 to 15 years on average to reach your ideal culture based on factors of size, geography, and strength of current culture. However, you can make significant progress in just 1-2 years! Set clear “stretch” timelines and allow for detours, but then get the team back on course to its ideal culture. Continue measuring the culture every 2 to 3 years to stay on track.


1Cooke, Robert A. & Lafferty, J. Clayton. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

2Chaleff, Ira. (2009). The courageous follower: Standing up to & for our leaders, third edition. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.