Strategy and Goals Before Culture?

business cultureFound an interesting read in Sunday’s Seattle Times about Steve Ballmer’s new strategy for Microsoft, a major reorg “designed to increase collaboration and speed innovation as the company transitions to a devices-and-services company.” Ballmer has identified collaboration as a priority, and that to get there he needs to set the strategy and goals and presumably it will be achieved.

Is changing culture really that easy? Anyone who has joined an organization with a strong culture might question the ease with which change can really happen. And by culture, I mean the underlying values driving behaviors. Ballmer has identified the behavior he doesn’t want – lack of collaboration, silos, and slowness of innovation. However, he doesn’t talk about values, but instead describes “key attributes” like “being nimble, communicative, collaborative, decisive and motivated.”

What made me doubt his “strategy” for changing Microsoft’s culture came in the next statement from Ballmer when questioned about the current system of performance reviews – a stack ranking system that contributes to non-collaboration. He said only minor changes would be made because they want top performers. Does keeping top performers encourage collaboration or competition? How is collaboration going to be fostered when individual performance is still the most rewarded behavior?

Culture change can only happen when the true desired core values are identified, systems put in place to encourage and support these values, and then strategy and goals are layered on top of this foundation. Just like a building, if the foundation is not as well thought out as the strategy, it doesn’t matter how great the structure is, it will all come crumbling down at the first sign of trouble – or in most cases never get built because the foundation will not support it.

Think about other companies and their culture and strategy. Where do you see alignment and how does that coincide with success? Apple and Google are good examples of strategic and cultural alignment. They are crisp and clear in their values – not murky “key attributes” – and their strategy follows the culture. Apple may be struggling a bit after Jobs, but they are likely to find their way again because of the strong foundational culture.

It’s difficult for a company to change who they “are.” It’s much easier to identify what their strengths are and build from there. A company’s strengths are its values. Knowing what those are is key to any sort of real and lasting change. Strategy built on the values or strengths of the company is much more likely to succeed than the reverse.

Take a look at your company and see how your current strategy was built – values first? Or strategy and goals first? How is it working? If it’s not working, you might want to revisit the order and lead with values. It’s not always easy to spend time identifying a company’s values, but it’s always worth the investment as it usually results in a solid foundation from which to build any strategy.