Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast in Schools Too

Peter Drucker noted, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If this is true, what does this mean about the pursuit of educational excellence and innovation? Here are five implications.

We can’t test or standardize our way to educational excellence.

Throwing a new set of tests or standards at a series of existing school cultures does not change the culture in the school. If it is already a culture of compliance, then tests and standards will just drive people to comply in a new way, but it will not actually achieve something that the majority of us would confidently call excellence.

Raising the bar without a culture that equips people to reach that bar is a great way to create more people who feel like failures. Just look at what happened when they updated the GED tests to align with the Common Core. These sorts of unexpected and serious consequences are common with a test and standards-based approach to trying to improve education.

We can’t instruct our way to educational excellence.

Instruction happens within a broader culture. Even improving the formal instruction is unlikely to achieve the desired gains in student learning if we don’t have a rich “culture of learning” in our organizations. It might work for certain students, but it is likely to leave many others behind.

Culture is so much more than what teachers do and believe. They are functioning within an often complex culture that consists of parents, students, the community, and more.

Excellence will come from nurturing desires beliefs, values, habits, and practices.

In other words, pursuing educational excellence is about nurturing a culture of excellence, a culture of learning, a culture of curiosity, a culture of hope, possibility, and meaning. As little as these topics reach widespread public discourse about education, they are the secret to achieving the best outcomes in our learning organizations.

Strategy and culture must be connected.

As noted in this HBR article, “a strategy that is at odds with a company’s culture is doomed.” The only way that I’ve seen around this is to establish a culture within a culture, one that embraces the new strategy, but keep in mind that many organizations try this with early success, only to find the larger culture attacking the innovation within 3-5 years of its launch and shutting it down. If leadership doesn’t embrace the new innovation, it would eventually fail or need to be reimagined in a way that better aligns with the larger culture(s).

For many, it comes down to establishing a strategy that capitalizes upon the values, beliefs, and strengths of a given culture. This is a much easier pathway to success, granted that the larger culture is positioned to provide something that people want and value.

We are wise to lead with culture.

The grandest vision for a new school, program or project will fall flat without investing in shaping the culture. As I’ve visited great learning organizations around the world, the best ones always have strong and evident cultures that pop out at you. They are not all positive, but they are clear, and they have strong convictions about education. In the end, a great culture is what makes a great school.

This is important for us to remember with the growing interest in data-driven decision-making and learning analytics. These data can be helpful indicators but we need a more ethnographic approach to truly understanding what is happening, why it is happening, how to celebrate what is good, and how to address what is not. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, then school reform is about a cultural revolution in education.