Why Culture Trumps Strategy

As author of the popular New York Times column, "Corner Office," Adam Bryant has interviewed hundreds of CEOs in hopes of uncovering what leadership and organizational traits contribute to success. His first book, The Corner Office," which was published in 2011, unveils five common personality traits of high performers, gleaned from Adam's interviews with 70 leading CEOs.

His latest book — which was just released — draws upon interviews from 200 CEOs to uncover organizational traits associated with "innovating and thriving in a relentlessly challenging global economy," according to his publisher. The title of the book, "Quick and Nimble," suggests two of the most important characteristics of organizational culture.

This morning, I received an email from Adam's publisher promoting the book, and I also saw a column about it today's Harvard Business Review daily email. The title of the Quick and nimblebook caught my attention immediately.

You see, over the past few weeks, I've been working on an article on the challenges facing academic medical centers (look for it online in the next week or two), and "nimble" is a word that came up throughout my interviews.

As I set off to write the article, I'd assumed the answer to the myriad of challenges facing academic medical centers had to do with strategy. Academic medical centers needed to pick a competitive differentiator (lowest cost or best service, for example) and move their organization toward "winning" in this area — or so I thought. And while strategy is of course important, culture seemed to come up more often in interviews.

The thesis of "Quick and Nimble" argues that an organization's culture trumps strategy. I think Mr. Bryant is on to something here, especially since so many of my sources seemed to agree with him.

I've read a lot of research on organizational culture, and while it's certainly important, it's hard to believe an organization can prosper without a clear strategy to propel it towards an envisioned end point. But, if others (who certainly know more than I about running an organization) are to be believed, market dynamics today change so quickly, that it's more important to have a culture than can quickly adjust toward a new vision than a culture that continues rigidly toward one that may be outdated.

This rigid, slow-to-change, slow-to-make-decisions culture plagues many academic medical centers, and is pretty much a defining characteristic of all of academia (trust me, I have two parents and a sister who are professors and I taught college-level courses for several years before landing at Becker's.

As I write in my upcoming article:

"AMCs have an incredible aggregate of talent and capabilities, but have been relatively slow to make decisions because their academic culture makes them largely consensus-driven organizations."

Ora Pescovitz, MD, CEO of University of Michigan Health System used the word "nimble" several times in our interview last November. "Academic medical centers have excelled at the innovation. Creativity is in our DNA. Where we need to improve is in our ability to be more nimble, more flexible and more adaptable. That requires a culture that is prepared to evolve," she says. "We're not as adaptable or responsive as our competitors."

So how does one develop a culture that adapts, and is flexible and nimble? I guess will have to read Mr. Bryant's new book to find out.



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