Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Peter Drucker? Giga Information Group? Mark Fields? Eli Halliwell? Richard Clark? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Business leaders have found that the pre-existing culture of a company can thwart indispensable changes. A popular cautionary aphorism encapsulates this viewpoint. Here are two versions:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Culture eats strategy for lunch.

The famous management guru Peter Drucker often receives credit for this saying, but I have not found a good citation. This notion can also be expressed less vividly as follows:

Culture constrains strategy.
Culture beats strategy.
Culture trumps strategy.

Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in the September 2000 issue of the trade journal “PIMA’s North American Papermaker: The Official Publication of the Paper Industry Management Association”. Two paper recycling consultants named Bill Moore and Jerry Rose wrote an article about online transactions that referred to the adage in the concluding paragraph. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The biggest question mark is the interest of the recovered paper industry in moving forward in the e-commerce business. As stated in the March 2000 Giga Information Group headline “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast!” Will the culture of the recovered paper transaction business stymie those using an e-strategy to improve the marketplace? Only time will tell.

The Giga Information Group is a technology consulting firm that was founded by Gideon I. Gartner who also founded the influential Gartner Group. QI has not seen the March 2000 periodical; hence, QI has not seen the initial surrounding context. In addition, the saying may have been in circulation before that date.

Peter Drucker who died in 2005 was not mentioned in the earliest citations found by QI. His name was attached to the saying by 2011.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The 1985 book “Organizational Culture and Leadership” by Edgar H. Schein included a precursor expression between quotation marks suggesting that it was already circulating: 2

More and more management consultants are recognizing these types of problems and are noting explicitly that, because “culture constrains strategy,” a company must analyze its culture and learn to manage within its boundaries or, if necessary, change it.

Schein also included another precursor expression: 3

Yet, if culture determines and limits strategy, a cultural mismatch in an acquisition or merger is as great a risk as a financial, product, or market mismatch.

In September 2000 a paper industry trade journal asserted that the “breakfast” version of the adage had appeared in a publication of the Giga Information Group as mentioned previously.

The December 2000 issue of the trade journal “Health Care Strategic Management” contained an article by Scott A. Mason that referenced the variant with “lunch” instead of “breakfast”. The saying was placed between quotation marks: 4

Planning tends to go in cycles. Strategy and operations can be positioned at either end of a continuum. As operational issues become all-consuming, such as in times of severe downturns, then strategy tends to get pushed aside—“Culture eats strategy for lunch.” This is similar to dismissing the sales staff during downturns in revenues or orders. It is sales staff that should bring in the new business, yet they just walked out the door.

An “Instructor’s Manual” with a copyright date of 2000 contained a related saying. The manual by Thomas W. Lloyd of Westmoreland Community College was a companion to the fifth edition of the textbook “Management” by Richard L. Daft. QI has not yet verified this citation in hardcopy. The following text is based on a snippet match in the Google Books database: 5

The human elements of organizations became powerfully self-evident when between half and three-quarters of the mergers and restructuring projects failed during the late ’80s and the early ’90s. These expensive experiences taught change-management gurus to share slogans like: “Culture beats strategy.”

In 2006 the Associated Press news service published an article about Ford Motor Company and Mark Fields who was at that time the President of The Americas; Fields later became the CEO of Ford. The article asserted that the adage was one of his favorites: 6

The team’s headquarters was a windowless conference room next to a long row of engineers’ cubicles. The walls of the conference room are papered with charts, goals and timetables. One of Fields’ favorite slogans on the wall: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

“You can have the best plan in the world, and if the culture isn’t going to let it happen, it’s going to die on the vine,” Fields said.

In 2006 “The Australian” printed an article about the American entrepreneur Eli Halliwell, CEO of the skin care company Jurlique. A clumsy version of “culture trumps strategy” was included: 7

It was while working with respected Wall Street investment advisory house Sanford C. Bernstein Research in the mid-1990s that Halliwell says he identified what he regards as the single largest factor in determining the success of a company.
“It always comes down to people,” he says.
“It’s about the whole team and the culture — it trumps strategy, it trumps financial position.”

In 2008 “Harvard Management Update” reported that a pharmaceutical executive had invoked the saying: 8

And although our survey found that nine out of 10 executives put culture on a par with strategy, some, like Merck CEO Richard Clark, go one step further: “The fact is, culture eats strategy for lunch,” he told World Business. “You can have a good strategy in place, but if you don’t have the culture and the enabling systems that allow you to successfully implement that strategy, the culture of the organization will defeat the strategy.”

In 2011 the textbook “Business Strategy: An Introduction” gave credit to Peter Drucker: 9

Often, change management involves changing ways of thinking and doing and, in essence, changing culture. However, as the phrase often attributed to Peter Drucker claims: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’

In March 2011 the website of the “Harvard Business Review” published an article by Nilofer Merchant with a title containing a pertinent adage: 10

Culture Trumps Strategy, Every Time

In 2014 the “Los Angeles Times” profiled the head of the L.A. Fire Department who ascribed the saying the Drucker: 11

There’s a Peter Drucker quote, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” The good ideas we come up with, we have to be careful that a large organization can accept.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research, and results may change based on future discoveries. The first citation asserts that someone at Giga Information Group employed “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast!” in March 2000 although it is possible that the saying was already in use at that time. The linkage to Peter Drucker occurred years later and is not well supported.

Image Notes: Picture of breakfast from jill111 at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Daniel Barker, Anne Schwarz, Alan R. Hesketh, and Dave Hill whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. In addition, thanks to previous explorers of this topic, e.g., George Anders [Forbes contributor] at Quora and Barry Popik at his website.)

Update History: On May 25, 2017 the 1985 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 2000 September, PIMA’s North American Papermaker: The Official Publication of the Paper Industry Management Association, Volume 82, Number 9, Recovered paper trading—ready for the Web? by Bill Moore and Jerry Rose (Moore & Associates, a paper recycling consulting firm based in Atlanta, Georgia), Start Page 26, Quote Page 28, Column 3, Paper Industry Management Association, Mount Prospect, Illinois. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1985, Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar H. Schein, Quote Page 33, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1985, Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar H. Schein, Quote Page 33 and 34, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 2000 December, Health Care Strategic Management, Volume 18, Issue 12, Performance-based planning for hospitals by Scott A. Mason, Start Page 14, Quote Page 14, Publisher: Health Care Strategic Management, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest ABI/Inform)
  5. 2000 Copyright, “Instructor’s Manual” by Thomas W. Lloyd (Westmoreland Community College); companion to “Management” by Richard L. Daft (Vanderbilt University), Fifth Edition, Quote Page 52, The Dryden Press, Orlando, Florida. (Based on Google Books snippet match; not yet verified with hardcopy)
  6. 2006 January 24, Arizona Daily Star, Ford takes close look at itself as job, factory cuts are set by Dee-Ann Durbin (Associated Press), Quote Page D5, Column 3 and 4, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 2006 June 13, The Australian (Australian Magazine), Jurlique goes back to its roots by John Lehmann (MATP), Section: Finance, Quote Page 22, Australia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  8. 2008 February 27 (online posting date), Harvard Management Update, Creating and Sustaining a Winning Culture by Paul Meehan, Darrell Rigby, and Paul Rogers, Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts. (Accessed via hbr.org; article appeared in January 2008 issue of Harvard Management Update) link
  9. 2011, Business Strategy: An Introduction by David Campbell, David Edgar, and George Stonehouse, Third Edition, Quote Page 263, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  10. 2011 March 22, Harvard Business Review (online), Culture Trumps Strategy, Every Time by Nilofer Merchant, Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts. (Accessed via hbr.org) link
  11. 2014 March 19, The Los Angeles Times, Into the Fire: Patt Morrison asks James G. Featherstone, Quote Page A11, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)