Adaptation: the interplay between culture and strategy

To influence change in an organization, I have found that these two elements are fundamental:

  • The strategic objectives of the change initiative to be implemented, and
  • The culture of the organization, and how it may support those strategic objectives       

Organizational culture is what emerges over time through small day-to-day events and in large significant shifts, including in particular shifts that are unplanned or unanticipated that have lasting impact.

Culture is understood in the norms that are seen, the stories that are told, in small groups, in big settings – it is what is known about the organization – its internal environment. Each norm and story, and the way that people respond to them, form the basis of the organizational culture. The more consistent the stories, the stronger the culture becomes.

Strategy is executed through the behaviors and actions of everyone in the organization. Those behaviors and actions are impacted by the cultural norms.

So - culture provides the context for options for strategic action. This context is critically important. The successful implementation of any new strategic opportunity depends on the fit – does the culture support it? In general, if an organization’s culture does not fit with the implementation realities of the new strategy, there are three options:


  • Find other opportunities more attuned to your culture.
  • Work to prepare your organization’s culture before full-scale implementation.
  • Press ahead while expecting to fail. Obviously the resulting failure will get embedded in the culture. If the culture holds that “failure is not an option” this could be problematic, although some organizations do learn well by failing.


Picking an option in guiding the organization is a blend of science and art, logic and emergence. Given the vital role of cultural context, if you take the stance that strategy is more about insight than process, you more readily take culture into account in implementing strategic direction.

So what is change really about? Adaptation.

Think of the yin-yang symbol - culture renews strategy, and conversely, strategy shifts culture. They form an interdependent pair - any problem with one will affect the other, yet the success of one creates the potential for the success of the other. Adaptation is the overall interplay between the two.

Adaptive capacity is the key to sustaining culture and achieving strategic objectives.  Big strategic opportunities depreciate in value and expire over time, unless they are bolstered by smaller strategic moves that renew and revitalize those opportunities. These small yet significant moves at times must be chosen in the moment – to adapt to current conditions. An organization that is quick to adapt to internal and external changes improves its chance to deliver on large change initiatives.

Culture is a key variable in the chaos of inputs that you must organize and think through to craft strategic direction. If you are looking for a quick in-and-out strategic opportunity, where you have no intention or need of sustaining long-term gains, culture does not matter in the design (although the culture WILL surely be affected by this event). If you are looking at long-term significant opportunities where your intention is to build and grow a company to exploit those opportunities, managing culture is vital. Achieving strategic intentions depends on the development or shaping of culture toward these intentions. When culture is ignored, strategic objectives almost surely fall short of the intentions. There is no “there” there to support them.