Dark matter eats strategy for breakfast
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous – or apocryphal – quote from management consultant and author Peter Drucker. He may or may not have used those exact words but he certainly believed that an intended strategy could be overwhelmed by the culture of all levels of staff in the organisation, such that the intended strategy and the realised strategy are very different. And lots of surveys support this, suggesting that more than 90% of strategies are not implemented as intended. So Drucker had identified that yawning gap and offered an explanation for the difference.
He thought it was the organisation’s culture which overwhelmed the strategy, but this blog post is going to offer an alternative explanation.
Let’s turn to a model from Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana. Like all good models, it’s extremely powerful yet also simple to grasp. He described the concept of structural coupling, the process by which an organism is structurally changed by its environment and the environment is structurally changed by the organism. Think about a hummingbird. Its beak adapts to fit a particular flower where it gets nectar and the flower adapts to receive the hummingbird’s beak to ensure pollination. Each changes the other structurally.
It’s easy to transpose this to a organisational context. An organisation is structurally coupled to its environment – the organisation changes its environment and the environment changes the organisation. And of course most organisations have multiple structural couplings, with a market, a competitor, a partner, a regulator. Each structural coupling has an effect on the organisation and it has an effect on each actor it is coupled to.
These structural couplings have a natural trajectory, each coupling has a tendency to push or pull the organisation in particular directions. As the organisation changes to meet those demands, and changes the other actor, it becomes exposed to slightly different pressures and demands, slightly different risks and opportunities. Each little adaptation is tactical, but the cumulative effect gives each coupling a momentum and an energy which is nothing at all to do with the intended strategy of the organisation. The energy of the coupling will take the organisation in a particular direction.
So structural couplings drive the direction an organisation goes in, and they also condition how managers and staff think, and affect how they rationalise decisions. The aggregate effect of the couplings makes up the default and pretty much invisible driver of strategy, the strategy which is actually executed. One of our colleagues described structural couplings as “the dark matter of strategy.” Dark matter makes up most of the mass and gravitational force of the universe. It’s everywhere but invisible, we can infer its presence from its effect.
So while Drucker thought that culture eats strategy for breakfast, we think it’s dark matter that eats strategy for breakfast, the effect of all the structural couplings that the organisation has.