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Strategy versus Culture: Why Developing Your People Is More Important


Strategy versus Culture: Why Developing Your People Is More Important

by John Steele

Chairman of the English Institute of Sport, Director of Loughborough Sport and IDG Associate

I have always prided myself in being able to devise and implement strategy. I should add that there are plenty of management and operational skills that I lack, but seeing and planning future direction and the “big picture” sits comfortably with me.

However, recently I have started to question the traditional approach to strategic planning and how we map out the future for our organisations. Over the last 15 years I have been part of creating strategic and high level plans in sport including four year Olympic cycles and medium term plans for multi-million pound organisations. I believe these have been effective and provided a basis for operational success. But the nature of the environment we now operate in and the demands it creates have significantly changed, to the point where I believe we must question how we plan.

The rapid pace of change and constantly evolving technology means that traditional strategic planning has become one paced and turgid. Are we in danger of using outdated methodology to satisfy governance demands and our need to reassure ourselves and others that we have a detailed plan into the medium term? There is a saying in the military that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” As soon as we try to implement, the plan becomes outdated or unsuitable for the unpredictable environment that presents itself.

So, how must we evolve? Perhaps the old adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is becoming more and more appropriate. I have known many organisations with strong effective cultures that have prospered despite poor strategic planning, but I have never known an organisation with a robust strategic plan but a dysfunctional culture thrive.

Perhaps this should help us order our priorities between planning and people development. Tearing up all long term plans, developing our talent and flying by the seat of our pants is possibly a step too far, but a balance must be struck. Concise, short, succinct plans that provide a framework, on which adaptable, situational leaders can base their decision making, has to be the way forward.

It takes courage to resist the urge to put endless detail into plans, which our warped reasoning thinks will reduce the risk of executives taking bad options. What is needed is a plan that gives big picture direction and aspiration not chapter and verse of how to implement. A plan that doesn’t dictate ways to operate, but trusts and empowers the skill and judgement of the organisation’s leaders. A plan that provides a platform for innovation and supports adaptability. A plan that doesn’t stipulate identical “values” for all, but acknowledges the hybrid vigour produced by diversity of value sets within teams. And finally, a culture that relishes an unpredictable working environment where the only constant is change.

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