Your workplace culture will always overrule your strategy

Whether you’re running a startup of less than ten people, an SME of less than 100 or a multinational organisation with thousands of employees, your workplace culture plays a bigger role than you might think.

And by culture, we don’t mean free pizza or bean bag chairs, or a mission statement pinned to the wall. Those things don’t create a core set of values that’ll drive business goals.

Ben Horowitz, co-founder and general partner of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, has a clear definition of what workplace culture really is.

Horowitz defines culture as the “collective behaviour of everybody in the organisation.”

Strategy is important but culture even more so

Of course, having a business strategy is important.

You need to set out the goals your organisation wishes to achieve and the direction in which your whole team will move to achieve these goals. Ensuring that every member of your business understands the business strategy, and the role they play in achieving it, is critical if you want to run a successful organisation.

But if the workplace culture that underpins how the members of your organisation act and behave in a manner that destroys trust, is unsupportive and allows for bullying to thrive, your business strategy is going to be nothing more than a useless document.

An environment like this creates unhappiness, which can swing a company’s culture, strategy, and of course profitability, into a steady downward spiral.

Employees that feel fulfilled and see their workplace as a platform for career and personal growth, work harder and are more productive. The business strategy then becomes something that staff will get behind and they’ll drive the organisations’ collective goals.

Bees have it waxed

Beekeepers will tell you that each hive, each swarm, develops its own personality.

One swarm will be aggressive and reactionary while the swarm in the hive next door, is calm and peaceful. The two swarms share the identical environment, the same nutrition, but they’ll develop their own individual culture. It’s the same in any group of people.

The difference between a swarm of bees and the staff of a company is that each bee in a colony instinctively knows their job and their responsibilities. They follow their purpose and understand the goals of the swarm. And yet, collectively, they’ll find their own way of doing things.

It’s up to the leadership of an organisation to ensure that each individual staff member understands their role in the bigger scheme of the company. If left alone, a company will develop its own culture, just as the hive develops its own personality.

And it’s best that this isn’t left to chance, says Horowitz.

“When you start implementing your culture, keep in mind that most of what will be retrospectively referred to as your company’s culture will not be designed in, but will evolve over time based on the behaviour of you and your early employees. As a result, you will want to focus on a small number of cultural design points that will influence a large number of behaviours over a long period of time,” he says.

Company culture doesn’t refer to things like company values or employee satisfaction, he goes on. Rather, it’s designing a way of working which will:

● Distinguish you from competitors
● Ensure that critical operating values persist such as delighting customers or making beautiful products
● Help you identify employees that fit with your mission

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How do you turn ‘culture’ into tangible building blocks?

The example of Amazon’s door-desks explains illustrates company culture beautifully.

Jeff Bezos once had an idea for a company that delivered value to its customers rather than extracting value from its customers.

The founder and CEO of Amazon figured out that the way to do this is through “obsessive customer focus”.

But how can you turn that into a building block of company culture?

His idea was simple: every desk at Amazon would be built out of a cheap door from The Home Depot with legs nailed to it.


“These desks serve as a symbol of frugality and a way of thinking. It’s very important at to make sure that we’re spending money on things that matter to customers,” said Bezos to the Seattle Times. “There is a culture of self-reliance. (With the low-tech desks) . . . we can save a lot of money.”

Culture strategy alignment

Free pizza on a Friday is great.

Organic vegetables on a Wednesday is a nice touch.

Family fun days are cool.

But how does a perk like this drive a business value? What do they do to distinguish your business from the one next door? A company culture is developed through analysis, care and creativity. The basis of that process should be a well-articulated strategy and a thorough understanding of the core company values that will distinguish your business from its competitors.

Those values are then translated into the traits that will become your business’ culture.

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