the will of the institution eats culture for breakfast

“Man is a rationalizing animal not a rational one.”

Robert Heinlein


This is about culture even though it is not about culture. What I mean by that is I saw for the billionth time “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” something Drucker never said, most likely would have never said, and is kinda nuts to say. Ironically, Purpose is more likely to eat strategies then culture. Anyway. Let me talk about what that statement really says and what it should say: “systems eat misguided strategy.” What I mean by that is culture is what people do together and what they do together is usually reflective of the system in place. But it gets a bit worse. The truth is the Will of the Institution eats culture and strategy is simply actions a business takes to feed the Will of the Institution.

Look. The reality is that most employees, including managers and leaders, are rationalizing animals. What I mean by that is most people, within an organization or institution, will use the system as it exists to, well, exist/thrive in the role they are in. that includes strategies. Most rationalizing sane people simply seek to optimize what exists. That’s kind of what most C-level people do. They may not like the system, but it is what it is, the competition is most likely optimizing a very similar system, so you gotta do what you do so the business survives. Maybe that is culture, maybe it is not, but it is 100% a description of a system.

Which leads me to the conflict between the system and the people.

This is a piece in and of itself, but for today let’s talk about angst and anxiety. What the typical business system, under the guise of culture, has done, as a mechanism of growth at all costs, is actually to stifle the future. What I mean by that is business system growth is not the same as personal human growth. Therein lies the most basic conflict and the one which creates the most angst and anxiety. This conflict may certainly lead to disengagement, but I think that word is too sweeping. Someone may disengage mentally, but will be fully engaged with the system. That is actually what many institutions encourage; work the process and the process will reward you. Pretty simple. So simple, in fact, most employees line up and embrace this, or, what I call “the Will of the Institution.” They do so not because they like it, but it’s the system in which they are placed. Strategies may be defined and implemented with the best of the intentions, but if they do not match the Will of the Institution, well, it will get eaten – not by culture but by the Institution itself. By the way, that’s where most radical thinking goes to die. Regardless. There is almost always conflict between individuals and the institution where the institution seeks to impose some “will.” To be sure, the systems produce profits so there is no apparent rationale from leadership perspective to attack the system, but individuals are nibbling away at the system trying to make it (a) possibly reach higher value creation potential or (b) possibly make it more palatable to the potential of the people. Within these institutions, if enough people are nibbling away (because there needs to be enough movement in order to stop inertia) a shift will occur. Once again, this isn’t culture, this is just people fighting within a system and strategy is typically not the weapon they use.

Which leads me to point out that behavior is an outcome of system design choices.

Institutions are infamous for talking about ‘culture’ when they really mean systems and process. Goals and accountability are outcomes of the system. The system is always designed to shape an operating model systematically encouraging a range of choices, often very bounded, designed to shape desired performance and whatever the Institution perceives is the value that should be delivered to generate the profit/financial performance desired. And while it is true an individual can shape the system just as a system shapes the individual, the power is not equal. Individuals nudge systems, systems bludgeon individuals. This means, by default, the system inevitably shapes the social aspects of the institution. I guess that is ‘culture,’ but it is actually a system strategy that eats any positive organizational culture.

Which leads me to machines and people.

Systems, as the Will of an Institution, are basically an attempt to make the entire business, and all its pieces – including humans, into some type of replicating machine; a production line as it were. Technology has only encouraged institutions to think this way. Machines and technology have augmented our ability to ‘distribute’ thoughts, ideas, social connections and a variety of things that add value in the marketplace of people and business. This is captured in Metcalfe’s Law: as the number of people involved in any communications technology increases, there is exponential growth in the amount of communication paths. This is known as the network effect and it has both good and bad properties. I imagine my point here is as connections and connectivity expands, Institutions will seek to create stronger and higher border walls. The main ‘wall’ they build, within some twisted culture worldview, is objective setting. For example, ROI. Or. Profit. Some simplistic stripped-down objective which can be wielded as a dull axe to the culture and systems analysis. It matters because ‘maximize the return on investment’ tends to encourage ignoring the things not so good for society so an ROI-focus meets some specific business objectives. Sure. Sometimes a business will pony up some higher Purpose, or some  societal-focused objectives, but most are just a sub-objective meant as a ‘culture importance’ head nod. Anyway. ROI, or things like that, absolve the Institution, and the system, of anything but that objective. Yeah. A system is less than careful in discussing humans and humanity because it simply views humans and connectivity as ‘social machines’ to be built and optimized of, and by, the system. As a corollary, the builders of systems, i.e., the Institutions, use technology and to a lesser extent machines, to create and use people, as passive recipients with aggressive intent – to produce specific results. People become part of the machine simply by being part of the system and an Institution will gladly step forward and call it ‘our culture.’ It is a reinforcing system in that individuals act both in, and upon, institutions and they embody, realize, and reproduce those institutions through their daily activity. This does not make technology and the machines dependent variables within the system, but tools with which to craft social behavior and dynamics and culture. I would be remiss if i didn’t point out much of what happens in today’s technological world, and culture building, occurs independent of human awareness, yet, humans are still accountable for much of the system itself.

  • ** note: as an aside, if this piece makes you grumpy, you have a responsibility to reflect upon your actions/thoughts even though technology may have encouraged the action/thought.

So, while business models are the structures and systems of a business which creates value to offer to a marketplace, it is the business systems which make people subservient to some process and incentivize them to the will of the institution so that while being paid as an individual, they must worship the institutional process/structure/system/culture to do so. Strategy gets eaten at the altar of this.

Which leads me to culture’s relationship with a system.

Business lives in a world of relations, connectivity and connections, i.e., business is not performed in a void. An enlightened business, one which accepts being accountable beyond simplistic profit self-interest, needs to understand how dynamic systems work, social relations work and how everything they do is connected to the community and, ultimately, society. They need to understand that business is not just a sum of its relations, but also the people that stand in between, or intersect, are just as important. The reality is that systems, even when focused on the greater good, tend to never be totally successful because they ignore, well, people.  What I mean is that while we talk about technology/machines to help us better manage value, the economy, and society, we should also, simultaneously, talk about how humans can better manage value, economy, and society. People are only scratching at their potential and systems are not crafted to enable potential maximization – of individual, companies, society, or the economy.  People can babble all they want about culture eating strategy all they want, but the real issue is the way business is used to running is mismatched against an increasingly dynamic, complex, business world and the existing systems, for the most part, reflect that mismatch. Progress is almost always defined in additive, multiplicative or exponential terms. The reality of humans is that they have exponential potential, but current systems arc toward additive results and subtractive meaning. Therein lies the conflict business must resolve for a better future. So maybe stop talking about culture eating anything and start investing energy in systems development so your strategies are effective. Ponder.

Written by Bruce