Culture Ate Strategy

Peter Drucker predicted it and it actually happened: culture ate strategy for lunch. 

At the SXSW premier of the Compaq documentary film Silicon Cowboys,  I was reunited with other members of the senior leadership team that created the business phenomenon that was Compaq. In some ways it was like a class reunion – I hadn’t seen most of them for 20 years or more, our spouses had the spouse-at-a-reunion experience and there were many, many stories about our time together building the company that became the then fastest growing in American business history.

Through all of the stories, one strong common thread emerged. The culture that was Compaq was a special one, and it was that culture that made us successful.  It was our alignment with the culture and the values underneath it, that made the impossible … well, possible.  You don’t have to mimic Compaq’s culture to be successful (although I can argue strongly for it), but “A” players do self-select into a company based on its culture. As we experienced at Compaq, a sudden, seismic shift in culture can cause unrepairable damage. 

Here are a few of the core elements of that successful culture:

  • Mutual trust and respect
  • Deep individual understanding and belief in the vision of the organization
  • A sense of shared purpose coupled with an alignment of action
  • An intolerance, at every level, for office politics
  • Eagerness to solve hard problems by working in the white spaces as much as in our functional boxes to get things done

The overwhelming reason Compaq doesn’t exist as a corporation today is the change that occurred when founder Rod Canion was suddenly ousted by the board in 1991.

It was a change carried out in a way that the company could not recover from, and that change was a shift in the foundation of the company’s culture. 

Why? It wasn’t just the loss of a beloved founder; other organizations have transitioned smoothly through that gate. It wasn’t because the new strategy or culture were inherently bad. 

It was because the change caused decisions to be made very differently – they suddenly were made from a differentbase, a different set of core values. 

Compaq went on to have a few more successful years in the early 1990s but was ultimately subsumed but HP.

An outside vendor told me that the difference was palpable even to someone in her external position. She said”Before, people were always in the building working, there was a steady hum. A glow. After the change, I’d see people streaming out the door at 5:00. The entire feeling of the place, at all times, was different.”  I say we lost our heart. 

Highly successful people have choices about where they work, and they consistently choose places that engage their heads and their hearts. Create a culture for your organization that attracts, engages and rewards both.

Karen Walker

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