Organizational Guidance Systems

Recently I ran across a quote often attributed to organizational guru Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Actually, one can find many versions of it from many different sources: “Culture beats (or trumps) strategy.” “… culture determines and limits strategy” (Edgar Schein). It is a maxim that has been going around “change management”circles for a long time.

The point, of course, is not that strategy is unimportant, but that “culture” frequently sabotages strategy in organizations … and families. In organizational literature culture is all the invisible stuff that holds things together, things like mission, values, traditional ways of doing things. These are things that are hard to measure and evaluate, and they defy managing. While strategy can be improved and taught, culture is very difficult to change. Culture is caught day by day and week by week. Culture is built over time by the daily functioning of an organization.

I think we can go this management meme one better. While culture is important and certainly deeper than strategy, the nature of an organization’s emotional system is deeper than culture. An organization’s emotional system is its guidance system. By “emotional” I mean the instinctive (or automatic) responses a system has to the challenges and vagaries of everyday life, i.e. not only its response to its mission, but the very shape of the mission itself. We are not just, or even primarily, talking about feelings here. We are talking about an organization’s DNA, the hereditary way it responds to its life within society.

Such “emotional DNA” is established in an organization’s beginnings, largely on the basis of the emotional character of its founding leaders, which character grows from the family emotional systems of those leaders. Once established this guidance system may be refined through succeeding generations, but the DNA remains the same and determines the possibilities and limitations of all future refinement. So if you want to understand the deep and enduring character of an organization, study its founding history and the emotional character of its early leadership. It will tell you what you can expect of an organization in the present.

The emotional DNA of an organization does not change. However, which segments of DNA get expressed is influenced by experience and environment. Strong leadership in a system can influence what segments of an organization’s emotional DNA get expressed. That is, an organization’s emotional guidance system can be influenced for the better. When strong leadership is lacking, or when leadership changes frequently, an organization tends to revert to that of its founding emotional guidance system. For there to be a lasting change in a system’s emotional character, such leadership must continue for many years.

So organizations may do all the strategizing for strength and stability that they want. Without attending to the emotional system, positive results from strategy will be short-term and limited, if they happen at all. On the other hand, for lasting change one must attend to the emotional system, and that will first and foremost mean attending to leadership and engaging well-defined and emotionally self-regulated, i.e. thoughtful, emotionally responsive rather than reactive, leaders. And that “eats everything for breakfast.”

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