Culture and Strategic Plan Execution – A Match Made in Heaven or Hell?

Heaven or Hell… Where would you rather be? Well, it depends, you say, on whether hell is a place where people go who have broken the rules but had fun doing it or a blazing inferno. The former sounds like it could be kind of fun, the latter, not so much. 

Some of the same ‘it depends’ logic applies to strategic plan execution and company culture. Some companies are well positioned to achieve their plans (even if they never have up to this point) and others will struggle. The key is to know your organization and know if executing corporate goals is what employees can be motivated to do given the existing culture. Culture plays a large part when executing strategic plans because effective execution is dependent on everyone pulling together in the direction of mutual, common goals. 

Ask yourself these questions to help evaluate company culture:

  • Does power come from the top down or is power dispersed? Is the organization flat or multilayered? How is failure handled? How about success? Are employees motivated to try things or is the unwritten rule that if you stick your head up, it’ll be knocked down? 
  • How are behaviors reinforced? Are people negatively reinforced? Positively reinforced? Benignly left alone?
  • Has the company done something in the last two years that was (positively) out of character, out of the ordinary or achieved something that was perceived to have been very difficult?
  • How often do people use humor in their work day, with each other? How supportive are your teams from within and between each other?

The thing is, there is no perfect combination of answers that make a company ready for strategic plan execution. But considering the answers to some of these questions will give you an idea of whether or not you are well positioned to execute your strategic plan. And if you’re not, what kind of culture shift needs to happen to ensure your organization is ready for effective plan implementation.

How is power handled within your organization?

This group of questions deals with mobility and decision making. If your culture is highly centralized and upward approval-seeking, it will be a challenge for people to try new things. When everyone is used to asking for approval rather than permission, it’s likely only a few will think out of the box. When few are out-of-the-box-thinkers, then fewer try it which can then spiral into a position where everyone is waiting for the boss’s answer. This hampers movement and progress toward goals of consequence. The key here is to unlock the ‘permission-laden’ culture and allow people to try without fear of reprisal. This doesn’t mean you give everyone a large budget to spend how they see fit, or go off on a wild tear, it does mean you don’t knock down all ideas but the ones that don’t come from the top. It also means you give people a chance to try and if they fail, use the learning as a springboard to a better decision in the future.

What behavior is encouraged or rewarded? 

How does the organization incentivize? How do people behave and what does leadership reinforce? A company with lots of rules, regulations and approvals frequently engages in negative reinforcement when someone ‘colors outside the lines.’ This relates to the first set of questions in that it sets the tone for either seeing endless possibilities or unbelievable limitations around each corner. When cultures use a carrot rather than a stick, people are more likely to behave in a hopeful and open manner. This motivates employees to seek challenges and entertain new ways of looking at problem solving and goal attainment.


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‘I can’t get in trouble if I don’t do anything’

Another vibe in organizations is the ‘dead fish’ atmosphere. As difficult as it may be in a negatively reinforced environment, a benign, lack-of-life one is almost worse. This absence of direction creates a culture of ‘warm bodies but no brains’ that can be difficult to move off center. Sometimes this is very hard to get around, especially if it has existed for a while. One solution is to bring in fresh thinking from outside and reinforce that thinking with positive motivators. People learn by example and this can be helpful in teasing change out of others. Another solution is to replace those employees who do not fit the new direction. This will likely be difficult but when culture changes, people need to be given a chance to come along or find opportunities elsewhere.

Make sure history does not repeat itself

Past actions and company history have an effect on employees. If there is a tendency to use past failures as reasons to stop trying new things, very little will happen. One way to move to a new mindset is to build something new on a past success or new way of thinking. If you haven’t done either, pick one, do it and reinforce the positives after the team has seen the outcomes. Nothing creates energy like “Wow, we did it!” Use that to shake up the status quo of thinking and behaving. It’s important that people genuinely believe in the accomplishment. If you set an easy-to-achieve or meaningless goal, the positive feelings will elude you. It goes back to giving someone a trophy for 6th place. No one will feel good about it.

It is also important to learn from failure. An organization that learns from failure sends two messages: one – we’re not afraid to try something new; two – we learn and build on the experience. It doesn’t mean things won’t be tried again, it does mean that we celebrate the effort and look at what we need to change to make the failure a success.

Supportive teams have a good sense of… humor?

This is really about teams, how they operate and how they work together. One of the more interesting indicators of healthy teams is the presence of humor. Humor exposes ways of looking at the world and loosens up what might normally be a more rigid environment. Some teams do better with humor than others. But often it is a good sign of comfort and trust. Watch for it. Watch for teams who cover for each other and are willing to help each other. Pay attention to tension and when you can feel it. Is it only between certain employees on the team? If teams are led by someone seeking power from someone else or someone who wants to make sure they look better than another, trust is lost. This goes back to what behaviors the company reinforces and how open leaders are to give everyone a fair listen.

Strategic Planning Heaven and Hell

Begin asking yourself whether a culture that allows you to motivate your organization to engage in strategic planning that gets results. Because at the end of the day, any organization can write a strategic plan, but very few will execute. It’s the lack of execution that kills the future; a lack of execution that hurts organizational growth; a lack of execution that leaves employees without a sense of common purpose.

A positive culture helps reinforce common interests and plan execution. A negative one impedes progress and growth. Examining where you are and what you may be able to change will help you build the kind of culture that can achieve strategic goals together as a team. Strategic plan execution starts LONG before the first quarterly or annual review. Just like whether or not you get to heaven or hell… It starts long before you are dead! 

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Andrea Gibbs, MBA

Andrea Gibbs, MBA

Andrea Gibbs serves as Strategy Executive at MPOWR. A natural-born communicator, Andrea provides clarity to meeting discussions and brainstorming sessions.

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