Should we be spending more time focusing on culture than strategy?

Should we be spending more time focusing on culture than strategy?
Peter Drucker, the management consultant, author and educator, is quoted as saying “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. You may have heard this phrase before, but culture can be difficult to pin down. Strategy – plans of action to achieve particular aims – are relatively easy to write and can be done independently. Of course, the strategy needs to be mobilised and implemented, but this is more about “heads” than “hearts”. Culture is a shared experience – you know it when you see and feel it. It is the way a group of people behave, accepted norms, values and beliefs. It is intangible and vital. It tells you something important about the people, the things that matter to them, their sense of purpose.

Every team, organisation and school has a culture. In sports the dressing room culture is often cited as a reason for success or failure. Following Liverpool’s 7-0 victory over Manchester United (5th March 2023), there was much discussion of the players’ responses and the ongoing work of the manager, Erik ten Hag, to shift the culture and reinforce expectations. How did the players respond when the going got tough? You can have a great game plan (strategy) but if the players don’t show the values and behaviours to carry it out, it is ineffective. In test cricket, the England captain Ben Stokes and manager Brendon McCullum have brought a new team ethos that has seen a string of victories and even more exciting performances. Their bold approach has freed players to express themselves and take calculated risks, trusting in their abilities. Commentators have been running out of superlatives to describe the cultural shift as records keep being set by a flourishing team which is developing a distinctive identity.

These examples highlight too the particular importance of leaders in creating the culture. Another popular expression is ‘Leaders set the weather’. They do this symbolically by focusing on the values, beliefs and behaviours they want to see more of, and reinforcing expectations. They also model these themselves practically. Ten Hag, for example, following the 4-0 defeat of Manchester United by Brentford, joined his team on the run he made his player do to make up for the extra kilometres the Brentford players had run during the match.

So how does this apply to us, to the teams we are in and the school culture?

Here are some questions to reflect on:

  • How would you describe the culture you have in your team/school?
  • How can you better understand the culture?
  • What aspects of culture do you want to address?
  • What can you do to positively shape the culture today?

Culture is not static. Every action, every conversation, every decision is an opportunity to influence culture.

SSAT School Culture Survey 2024

This year for the first time, all SSAT member schools can take advantage of our unique School Culture Survey free of charge. It allows you to take the temperature of your school culture and gain valuable insights into strengths and development areas to inform your planning.

Find out more

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