Let's put it this way. If you ask employees, they are likely to say "I have no idea what 'culture' even means. But I sure pay attention to what my boss wants."
And in a heartbeat it is apparent that expectations (i.e. what the boss wants) are the driver of all strategy in any organization. They are the bricks in the wall that we see as culture. Pull out a few that are critical to the wall's structural integrity and the whole wall comes tumbling down.
So why aren't we focused on understanding the power of expectations instead of culture. Well, for starters, Peter Drucker said "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." So no one has looked past strategy. Everyone assumes culture is more powerful than strategy. The question we are raising is "If expectations are the driver of all strategy implementation, does this make expectations more powerful than culture?"
The Top-Down Stigma
Little is written about expectations as being the driver of strategy. We think this is because of what we call "the top down stigma". This is the notion that employees are independent, autonomous thinkers who, if left alone, will figure out what to do. So we hear things like: "Get me the right team and they'll know what to do."
The notion that strategy is imposed by top-down expectations seems to be an anathema to most academics and business writers. For them, all employees need to be able to figure out their own objectives. That may be so but it cannot happen without a clear articulation of the expectations those employees are expected to meet.
When you look at successful strategy implementation, the first thing you find is the articulation of clear expectations. This, in turn, enables managers and employees to be clear on strategy priorities and to identify choices of action to satisfy the imposed expectations.
The second thing you find is that all expectations flow top-down. What defines good organizations for us is that when employees and managers find that the expectations imposed on them cannot be reconciled with the realities of their external environment, they are allowed to speak up and say so. This is how employee and managerial feedback drives informed decision-making on strategy implementation.
Unfortunately, in far too many organizations, managers and employees are expected to keep their heads down and mouths shut when they see a disconnect between expectations imposed on them and their external reality. Eventually, strategy implementation fails because of this.
Confusing Strategic Thinking with Problem Solving
The second reason we think the focus should be on expectations rather than culture is that expectations are a key component in strategic thinking. However, there are far too many who make the mistake of thinking strategic thinking is about problem solving.
Peter Drucker told us in 1954 in The Practice of Management that strategy decisions were not problems to be solved. Back in Drucker's day, before strategy got tied up in a strait jacket labeled "competitive advantage", strategy was about choices of action.
Strategic thinking is a subset of critical thinking characterized by thinking about those choices of action. It does this by thinking about how to manage assigned responsibilities consistently with both imposed expectations and the realities of a changing external environment.
Problem solving is a distinctly different subset of critical thinking and is characterized by spending as much time time trying to identify "the problem" as will be spent solving it.
The point is that strategic thinking is driven by imposed expectations. For the CEO, Managing Director, or owner or, in the case of nonprofits, the Executive Director, these expectations come from major stakeholders, such as major shareholders, lenders, or donors. For all employees, the expectations are imposed on them by their boss.
It seems obvious to us that the best way to improve strategy implementation, as it cascades down through the organization, is to improve the articulation and discussion of expectations for its implementation.
Increasing the Reach of Expectations
Right now, expectations are the foundation of every annual performance appraisal. Employee performance is judged on the basis of whether it met, exceeded, or did not meet imposed expectations.
What we see missing is the direct link between employee expectations and how business units, departments, and functions go about their planning. This is because there is a huge void between employees and the strategies of the strategic plan.
The strategic plan should be the source of the initial expectations to drive strategy implementation by departments, business units, and functions. For example, if the growth strategy is to grow by acquisition, what expectations should be articulated to guide an acceptable implementation of the growth by acquisitions strategy?
Without these expectations, the growth strategy can quickly run amok (as it did for the Icelandic banks that went so spectacularly bust) or go nowhere (as it does for many organizations that do not understand how to use expectations to drive strategy implementation).
Obviously, the board of directors should be playing a large role in understanding and reviewing expectations as part of its role in providing oversight of the strategic plan.
Expectations are not going away
We often hear that an organization is dysfunctional because of its "culture". But at the end of the day, it becomes obvious that poor articulation and management of imposed expectations is always the cause of "bad culture".
There are still far too many managers and bosses who don't articulate clear expectations, preferring instead the deadly and ambiguous "Just get it done, okay? And don't bother me with the details."
We need to start focusing on clear articulation of expectations as the primary means to improve strategy implementation.
If expectations are the individual bricks in the wall called culture and you want to change the culture, then start by pulling out and changing the expectations most critical to holding up the wall. That's how to change culture. Don't focus on the wall. Focus on the most important bricks, the expectations.
For more on strategy and expectations, see Strategy + Expectations = Culture
For more on strategy, see The Alpha Strategies: Understanding Strategy, Risk, And Values in Any Organization