Scrappy management: In an ideal corporate environment, company ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’

Scrappy management: In an ideal corporate environment, company ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’


Let’s get it right: you might assume that I think company culture is just something we’re stuck with, and perhaps start polishing up your resume so you can find a place with a more attractive culture. Actually, that’s not a bad idea if you’re one of the 77 per cent of people that a recent Gallup poll says “hate their jobs” and you perceive yourself as a helpless victim of external forces beyond your influence.

But if you’re not yet ready to jump ship, and if you’re willing to take on the challenge of cultural change, there is hope (and a long list of business reasons) for doing so. Culture impacts execution, so it should be high on the list of important issues for every project leader.

Business outcomes such as revenue, profit, high quality, brand equity and customer delight are the result of what your people say and do, not the contents of some project plan or strategy document on a shared drive . . . somewhere . . . that the executives shared once or twice at an all-employees meeting or attached to an email (that was probably not read anyhow).

The culture of a corporate environment is far more ubiquitous and powerful than any ornate strategy, roadmap or product development lifecycle that is only seen during occasional quarterly reviews (or maybe never), and that culture influences everything that is said and done. In the words of Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Transplanting cultures

If you want to change culture there are highly ineffective ways to go about it. Here’s one. Imagine lopping off the top of an island (above the water level) from one company and plopping it down onto the base of another company. The observable behaviours and characteristics would have no meaningful connection to their underlying source. This would truly be a Frankenstein culture, and lead to all kinds of confusion for both the people in the system and those outside who must interact with this ‘island’s’ people.

That’s essentially what some companies do when they try to copy best practices – behaviours above the waterline – from other companies. Or, put another way, grafting a unicorn’s head onto a scorpion is unlikely to produce a unicorn. Installing a Silicon Valley style cappuccino machine and foosball table in the cafeteria of a stodgy old firm won’t make people more innovative, and instituting ‘The Toyota Way’ in a political shark tank won’t empower individuals to kaizen their jobs away. This is a mistake many companies make when they adopt “the next big thing.” Don’t go there!

Cultural cement not cast in stone!

Although resistance to cultural change is legendary, my own personal experience is that you can change culture. If you’re a project manager who wants to increase your chances of success, you SHOULD change it. But, whether you’re an individual contributor, a project manager, or a CEO, you do have influence on the culture via your behaviour in the business. Just as one exasperating jerk can ruin the workday for dozens of people, you can use your own behaviour and communication to create a pocket of excellence that will inevitably impact everyone who crosses your path. The first and most important step is answering the question “Change to what?”

Making culture work for you

You could spend 20 years, as I have, reading a pile of books, digging through data, experimenting and exploring what makes for an effective company culture that produces predictable and repeatable results without sucking people’s will to live. Or you could just implement the methods proven to work by years of statistically valid research. A good place to start is your own personal commitment to absolute integrity in everything you say and do, and a passion for enabling others to achieve their greatest potential through your work together.

Here’s what I’ve distilled out of lifetime of study, being obsessed with the idea that maybe earning a living didn’t have to make me wish I were dead! I’ve applied these concepts with vigour in my own work for the past 20 years, and I can personally recommend each and every one of these approaches as solid, viable, and relevant to most businesses. If you want to change company culture, change four key drivers of culture: the behaviours of Leaders, Managers, Individuals, and Teams. Here’s a guide to behaviour in each area that I promise will transform your culture – if not the whole company, at least the part between your two ears.


Companies with strong ‘transformational leadership’ practices outperform those with weak ones by a long shot, as shown below for a five-year period:

Strong Transformational

Leadership Practices

Weak Transformational

Leadership Practices

Revenue Growth 841 per cent – 49 per cent

Stock Price Growth 204 per cent 76 per cent

Ref: Leadership Practices, Adaptive Corporate Culture, and Company Financial Performance, Sonoma Leadership Systems

These practices, sifted out of an enormous body of research by Posner and Kouzes and documented in their book The Leadership Challenge, boil down to five key areas and 30 specific behaviours that any mildly conscious being can learn to adopt. The five key areas are:

Model the Way – Be a good example of the behaviours you would like to see in others.

Inspire a Shared Vision – Get everyone working toward shared goals.

Challenge the Process – Break out of “same old way” thinking and innovate.

Enable Others to Act – Support other people’s success.

Encourage the Heart – Practice an attitude of gratitude. Keep hope alive.

For practical tips on what exactly you should do to become this kind of leader you can read the book, but a one-page summary is available on the Leadership Challenge website.


Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us neatly refutes the effectiveness of motivation techniques that have been practiced for years in business. In his ‘Cocktail Party Summary,’ Pink says:

“When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system, which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators – doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:

1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.

2. Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.

3. Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

… be continued

  • A Tell report / Reproduced with the permission of the author Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S. Kimberly is a global business leadership consultant and author of Scrappy Project Management – The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces. She specialises in global team effectiveness. She is founder of Wiefling Consulting. Kimberly has worked with people form over 50 different countries.
About author

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *