It sounds like something Yogi Berra said. Regardless of whether or not he did, it’s an engaging way for Martin Ashcroft, Editor-In-Chief of Business Excellence, to begin a post about the relationship between strategy, execution, and culture and how our thinking about these aspects of organization success have changed over time.  Strategy and execution are certainly important, but without a culture that supports employee engagement, long-term success is unlikely. He writes:

…the most successful companies seem now to be combining these two approaches in their 21st century strategies. The rigid sounding top-down economic approach has evolved as performance initiatives like lean and continuous improvement take hold. With the emphasis of these initiatives being on workforce empowerment, enlightened CEOs have begun to realize they may not have a monopoly on ideas. Companies are increasingly adopting a collaborative approach to strategic ideas, where contributions can be passed up the managerial chain from the bottom. Not only does this capture ideas that may otherwise have been missed, but as the most brilliant strategy can succeed only if it is properly executed, gaining workforce commitment to the organization’s future strategic direction can only contribute to its success.

The importance of culture is evident in a recently released documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times. I saw it last night and although the movie is focused on the plight of newspapers in the Nytlogo379x64 digital age, what struck me most about this story was the contrast in cultures between NY Times and the Tribune Company after it was purchased by Sam Zell. Although both companies publish big city newspapers that are trying desperately to adapt to an instant, online news environment, their cultures are very different. And this difference in cultures appears to be what has made the difference in each company’s success. The NY Times is portrayed through the lens of a camera and director’s editing to be, at its core, humane, considerate, and respectful of its employees even in the competitive environment of deadlines and news scoops. NY Times leadership seems to be clear about its values and the importance of keeping to its core Chicagotribunelogo competencies, even while embracing the latest technologies. The Tribune Company, on the other hand, appears to have created a culture at the Chicago Tribune that denigrates women and rewards the owners at the expense of its staff. One is surviving and the other is in bankruptcy.

Having goals and a plan to reach those goals is certainly important. Following through on plans is also important. However, neither strategy nor execution matter if you have a culture in which employees feel devalued and don’t trust their leaders. Pat Zigarmi and Judd Hoekstra make this point in a post about culture at the WD-40 Company titled, What’s Killing Your Change Initiatives? Quoting the CEO, they write:

“Faced with the complexity of most change efforts, organizations need to gain everyone’s buy-in,” said Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40. “When peers become change agents together, they can become catalysts for the change process.”

One of the most likely suspects is an organization’s culture. According to Ridge the motive for the crime is usually fear of the unknown. He said leaders must remove the fear by including rather than excluding employees from decision-making processes related to the change. An inclusive, agile, high-involvement, transparent and trustworthy culture enables change, whereas a bureaucratic, secretive, low-trust culture can kill it. “The tone at the top sets the agenda for a trusted change effort and creates the culture where it can thrive,” Ridge said.

Out of fear or out of ignorance, managers tend to intensify their control behaviors when faced with competitive pressures and a need for change. The Tribune Company turned over leadership to someone who appears to have been more concerned with a quick return on his investment than the civic responsibility of the press. Many organizations under stress stop listening to their employees. Strategic planning reverts back to executive management, execution comes in the way of top-down directives, and the very people who are essential to making the company succeed are left out in the cold.