Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast...and what to do about it


I come from the country that built the Titanic. The ship was assembled in Belfast, a city in the north of Ireland. Three thousand workmen spent two years constructing the great ocean-liner.  White Star Line was the company that commissioned and launched the Titanic, and the ship was owned by J.P. Morgan, the American financier.

The Irish News described the Titanic’s system of watertight compartments and electronic watertight doors. Three million rivets held its massive hull together. The paper wrote: “The Titanic is practically unsinkable.”

The Titanic started her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City on Wednesday, April 11. Late on Sunday night, she struck an iceberg off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. By wireless telegraphy, the ship’s radio operator sent out signals of distress. Several ships were near enough to catch and respond to the call. But there were conflicting reports. Struck iceberg. Surveying damage. Awaiting support. And finally: SOS.SOS.SOS.

Sixty minutes after the collision, the first lifeboats were launched. 1 hour and 40 minutes later the ship had sunk. 1503 people drowned. 700 survived to tell their stories.

What caused this terrible tragedy in the North Atlantic?  

The iceberg, of course. Who could have foreseen this mishap? The ship was unsinkable! The crew was trained. The captain had an impeccable record of service!

But really, who was to blame? The chief naval architect had reduced the size of the watertight compartments to increase floatability. Shipbuilding contractors used weak iron for the rivets, rivets that to hold the hull together after the initial collision and puncture.  A senior manager of the White Star line had directed the bridge crew to increase ship speed in order to ensure on-time arrival. The captain failed to heed ice warnings directly in his path, gave the order to abandon ship several minutes after the ship began to list, and allowed lifeboats to leave partially filled.

Indeed, it was the underwater arm of a massive iceberg that caused the ship to go down so quickly with such a loss of life!

But history has assigned responsibility to human error. And I would argue this: it was a culture of arrogance throughout the White Star Line organization that sealed the passengers’ fate long before that first voyage. Publicity portrayed the Titanic as the most technologically advanced ship on earth, a vessel built with the highest standards, setting out to sea with trustworthy leadership and impeccable passenger service.

There were people who questioned the narrative – during design, construction, and on the night of the collision. But they were not heard. The strategy: complete construction according to the timetable. Put out to sea with great fanfare. Arrive in New York on time.


Iceberg is a Metaphor

One can think about organizational culture, strategy and tactics by picturing an iceberg. What’s visible above the water line, the tip of the iceberg, are organizational tactics – what people do every day. What sits at the waterline, and just visible to most, is strategy. What floats underneath, the invisible, underwater base (and massive in size in comparison to the tip) is the culture of an organization. Organization strategy and tactics are most visible and understood to the outside world. Culture floats under the waterline -- guiding and shaping the movements of the entire organization.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast is a phrase attributed to Peter Drucker but made famous by two business executives. In 2006, the Associated Press news service published an article about Ford and Mark Fields who was, at that time, the President of Ford America.

The (Ford) team’s headquarters was a windowless conference room next to a long row of engineers’ cubicles. The walls of the conference room were papered with charts, goals and timetables. One of Fields’ favorite slogans on the wall: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

You can have the best plan in the world, and if the culture isn’t going to let it happen, it’s going to die on the vine,” Fields said.

The phrase is also linked with Richard Clark, a former Merck CEO. The Harvard Management Update in 2008 reported that the pharmaceutical executive had invoked the saying.

… although our survey found that nine out of 10 executives put culture on a par with strategy, some, like Merck CEO Richard Clark, go one step further ‘The fact is, culture eats strategy for lunch. You can have a good strategy in place, but if you don’t have the culture and the enabling systems that allow you to implement that strategy, the culture of the organization will defeat the strategy.

If “culture eats strategy for lunch,” we best get clear about what constitutes culture. The culture of an organization is comprised of its rituals, roles, customs, practices, expected behaviors, values, thinking, language, manner of interacting, relationships, courtesies, and communication.

Culture and strategy needn’t be at odds or in competition. The task of leadership, management and every committed employee is to co-create the culture that helps drive strategy and execution. The active verb here is co-create, when tactical plans are developed, understood, and agreed to by all stakeholders.

Of course, people need authorization and tools to help them co-create and nurture a culture of transparency, truth-telling and accountability.

The lessons of the Titanic continue to echo in our time. The culture of “the finest ship ever built” led to a culture of arrogance at the top, going along in the middle, and don’t question authority at the front line. That culture supported a strategy of plowing ahead with catastrophic consequences.

It happens again and again on teams, in companies, and governments. It need not.


Building A Culture of Inclusion

At Toyota, any member of an assembly team is empowered to stop the assembly process if they notice a problem that may cause a defect.

Currently, I’m working with a leadership team of a biomedical company. The top team has chartered a process for engaging the entire workforce in naming and owning a set of core values. The task: name the four most important ways you want our company to operate with our customers, shareholders, business partners and each other. Give examples of positive behaviors that you want to become (or remain) hallmarks of our culture.

Authentic inclusion increases the likelihood that key stakeholders will help co-create a culture where values, as stated, become values-in-action.  

I visited the Titanic Museum in Belfast four years ago. I learned that the Titanic had an older sister ship, the Olympic, which was commissioned in 1911.

After the sinking of the Titanic, the Olympic was brought back to the Belfast dry-dock recently vacated by her doomed sister. Significant changes were made to the ship’s outfitting. The Olympic went on to sail as a British troopship in World War I. After the war, she returned to commercial use as a Trans-Atlantic passenger vessel. By the time the Olympic completed a safe and successful career in 1935, she had gained the nickname "Old Reliable".

For the White Star Line, the lesson about telling the truth, safety, and quality were learned the hard way. Voices once silent or ignored were finally heard and heeded. The culture did change – but only after it ate strategy for breakfast.


Learn more about how Interaction Associates helps build inclusive cultures.

About Michael J. Reidy

Michael has more than 25 years of experience in consulting and responding to the learning needs of adults in the technology, biotech, power, health care and financial services industries. Michael's interest is in adult education, and his belief is that the workplace has become the 'third place' of learning and development for the 21st century. Michael holds a master's degree in Public Administration from the HKS, Harvard University, and is a Board member and owner of Interaction Associates. Among his publications are "Principle and Profit-Corporate Responsibility in Ireland" and "Active Listening in a Virtual World."