Peanut Butter and Jelly

How Strategy and Culture Are like PB&J

You’ve surely heard the popular quote by Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” I’m a fan of Drucker and completely believe this analogy. But, it doesn’t tell the full story. 

I believe it’s important to understand how the two can optimize one another. I’m going to tell that story today using the metaphor of one of America’s favorite lunch entrées – the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

Here are my reflections and The Performance Lab by FirstPerson’s philosophy on the balance of strategy and culture. I’d love to hear yours too. 

Strategy and culture cannot stand alone 

Sure, a spoonful of peanut butter is a pretty darn good snack. Peanut butter on apples, bananas or crackers can also be quite fun but likely not fulfilling. And you sure as heck don’t want to just dip your fingers in either jar to get your fix. 

Almost always, you must apply peanut butter and jelly to something else to really enjoy it.

This is the first way strategy and culture are similar to PB&J: Investment in creating a good strategy or a healthy culture won’t get you much if the other is neglected. 

David Norton and Robert Kaplan wrote about this in their book The Balanced Scorecard, noting 90% of organizations fail to execute their strategies successfully. The Economist also points out 65% of companies are “somewhat ineffective” or worse at introducing change caused by strategic initiatives.  

The best organizational strategy outlines planned execution of work to advance them to an ideal future state. Rarely can these future states ignore the humanistic, cultural factors needed to deliver that future state. Unless your organization is not dependent in any way on human capital (impossible!), you must outline what pivots your team will make with advancements in people, process and technology. 

Likewise, the most effective culture evolution plans key off bets you are making on future strategy. Your roadmap to that ideal state should outline shifts in knowledge, skills, mindsets and behaviors of your people. 

Think of culture as the organization’s personality and identity; it’s the collective beliefs, behaviors and mindsets, as well as what the organization appreciates and recognizes as top talent. If your culture shifts without intention, your people aren’t going to be motivated internally nor attract the right people externally. Craft a “so what?” strategy tie for why these changes and shifts are needed.  

To bring this one home, here’s some food (see what I did there?) for thought: Does your business strategy need to be more client-centric? How about having more digital dexterity? Or operational excellence

Rightfully so, it’s likely things like this are called out often. However, if there isn’t a culture strategy to match these destinations, you won’t arrive there. Treating culture and strategy less standalone is a solid first step toward sustainable high performance.  

Balance of strategy and culture is key 

Ever taken a bite of a PB&J and got all jelly or just peanut butter? Not as good. Getting both ingredients spread to the edge in equal amounts is most ideal. 

Strategy and culture are both optimized when treated equally – held in balance, spread evenly. This balance can be achieved in various ways. Here is a list of success factors we have seen work for our clients: 

  • Senior leadership spends equal agenda time discussing strategy and culture in monthly staff meetings. 
  • Communications to the broader organization give equal airtime to strategy and culture. 
  • Leadership and professional development plans provide equal opportunity to deepen knowledge and skill in strategy and culture. 
  • Performance and succession reviews equally weight an employee’s talents around building and executing strategy with how that employee’s behavior impacts culture. 
  • Published metrics show balance between achievement of or movement toward strategies and ideal culture. 
  • Annual business plans have culture infused in the strategies. 

Is it feeling messy to separate culture from people strategies in your mind? Well, my PB&J is messy sometimes too, but ultimately, it is worth keeping it in rotation for my go-to lunch option. 

Realistically, culture is heavily intertwined in people strategy. What do I mean by this? If you saw the items in the suggestion list and thought, “well, Rebecca, my HR team drives some of those things, so I can’t influence them,” I call baloney! (And, it’s a way, way less desirable sandwich, in my opinion.) 

All people leaders own culture. It is not something we delegate only to HR. Of course, our HR friends are well-suited to advise plans that impact attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, but it is every single leader’s – maybe even every single employee’s – job to do culture “work” and to hold it of high value. 

Many people are allergic  

Just as a main ingredient of PB&J would kill my husband, strategy and/or culture have killed and are continuing to kill some great organizations. I get this work is high stakes, but it continues to surprise me how allergic some organizations and leaders to doing the work.  

Too many organizations do not have solid strategic plans. Too many organizations have not outlined how their culture should evolve. And way too many organizations have done the work on one only to ignore the strongest enabling factor resides in the other.  Here are some excuses I have heard over the years and my rebuttals 

“It’s too hard to predict the future.”  

Well, that certainly rings true in the year that is 2020. However, you can either plan the work and work the plan or be victim to what comes at you. If your organization is more than a solo entrepreneurial venture, I beg of you to put some short-term strategies on paper.

People crave strategic direction in order to know how to best apply their talents and energy. It’s ok if it’s not super futuristic or aspirational. Declare how you think you will win and get your culture and strategy aligned to get there…even if it’s small steps. 

“Culture is squishy/nebulous/fluffy/abstract and too hard to define/explain/manage/measure.”  

Boy, I hear you. I’ve seen countless debates on “what we mean by ‘culture’” in the Board room. I sure wish there was a universal definition that felt tangible to people. 

Even if you can’t explain what culture is in 5 words or less, I think it’s time we stop shying away from it. A group of humans only increases that complexity. Together, we are better. Knowing what we want to be “when we grow up” is one great way to start defining the ideal state – behaviors, attitudes, believes, to follow. And if that still seems challenging, start with the opposite: what would we reject? Here’s a HBR article that also starts to define culture. 

“We don’t have the time to dedicate to this.”  

Time is often the scarcest resource. I get it. I also get that firefighting and reacting to things that could have been planned strategically and culturally is a time suck. 

If you want to get into a proactive stance, you must double down on priority. I see clients making this choice weekly and commend them for it. Especially during a pandemic, it’s been hard to pull up and be future-oriented. Sometimes leadership teams have to get creative and take a weekend retreat to truly pause the daily grind and get ahead of the game. 

Others choose to put together a tiger team, maybe a subset of an executive team, and temporarily relieve those individuals from their day-to-day work. Whatever strategy may work for your company, know the time invested pays dividends in the future. 

How do we make Strategy + Culture taste as good as PB&J? 

There is so much proof that a solid strategic plan is critical to building and sustaining a successful organization. And, we know culture is critical organization success factor – and not just because Peter Drucker told us so but because we have all lived it and know it to be true. 

Perhaps we don’t hear often enough that they need to work in tandem. Perhaps companies are too often successful – usually short term – without discipline in either. Or maybe it’s just too daunting to tackle both simultaneously. 

The Performance Lab by FirstPerson is on a mission to make this all as appetizing as PB&J. The team has proven value in organizations of all types and sizes and are seeing remarkable shifts happening as a result. I would love the chance to talk further. 

Drop me an email and share your success story highlighting the positive outcomes you see from the right blend of strategy and culture. 

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