“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Huh?

A recent event in Helsinki — where we are collaborating this year with a quite large cross-section of independent thinkers and practitioners in the transport/mobility/access sector in support of a mind-stretching public enquiry into the topic of Examining the Prospects for Equity-Based Transportation – — brought together a small group of Silicon Valley whiz entrepreneurs for a week of “talks, workshops and encounters with an aim to bolster the entrepreneurial spirit and startup culture in our growing ecosystem” (kind of makes you wish you had been there, eh?).  And somewhere luring in the middle of their announcement I ran across what seemed to be the vaguely familiar phrase ” culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

Hmm. Very nice! But what does it actually mean? Or more to the point how is it often read and interpreted?

The first step in my virtual journey to understand was to try to find the origins of the phrase, which numerous sources trace to Peter Drucker but without any actual referencing. But maybe that does not matter in this case. After all who can claim with absolute certainty the original source of “Let there be light”. So let’s not worry about the source and instead just free our brains and work with what we have in front of us.

To me as someone who has worked his whole professional life in countries (i.e., cultures) other than his own, the meaning is as clear as culture can ever be.

Let’s take one and only one often recurring example that relates to our work : cycling as transport. No one can reasonably argue, for example, that the reason for the huge success of safe cycling for all in places like the Netherlands or Denmark, is the product of someone’s strategy. No, it is the culture, Stupid.

If you Google the phrase you will see that most of the references it pulls up are not only unsourced, but are eagerly put to work and explained as they see it by management consultants, “human resource” (somehow I find it hard to love that term) specialists , and others who variously care about and are paid to advise on the care and feeding of corporate images. If you wander around a bit through these entries you will see how they put this phrase to work for their own good purposes. Fair enough, that is certainly part of the greater whole.

But this leaves me profoundly unsatisfied. There is a far deeper point there, one to which we working in the many fields that together constitute the complex interacting nexus of sustainability and social justice (without which there can be no sustainability) need to understand.

So now let me define the phrase for you in a truly powerful way.

I refuse to.

It’s your job to make it your own.

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