Why culture is more important than strategy when it comes to winning the war on COVID-19

Unlocked subscriber content: Dr. Dave Richards adds some new analysis to an old L&D saying.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Giga Information Group, 2000.

Strategy is only as good as the underlying intelligence. History amply demonstrates that intelligence wins wars. Science already knows a lot about COVID-19, including mechanisms of spreading, the fact that elderly people and those with certain pre-existing conditions are at greater risk, and how to minimise our risks.

But at the time of this writing, we still lack some vital medical intelligence.

This includes the mortality rate, or why it seems to vary so much globally, whether affected people develop an immune response – antibodies, or how protective these will be, whether the new coronavirus might emerge again and again, perhaps in mutated forms, possibly as a deadlier and even more virulent disease, whether the degree of exposure determines the severity of symptoms and of course, why some young people seem only mildly affected while others die.

The key to effectively bridging psychology and strategy is engagement

The above quote reflects the fact that an ineffectual culture inevitably undermines even the best strategies. Culture is our term for collective psychology – attributes shared by people within a defined group. The ‘group’ unit of analysis can be national, organisational, or even a ‘sub-culture’ based on a group within a group.

Notions of cultures are often based on biases toward racial or national groups. We see some of this emerging in attitudes toward Chinese people, and their wet markets where the new coronavirus is alleged to have first emerged.

When we say culture trumps strategy, what we’re really saying is that strategies need to engage and consider people and their psychology.

I call this ‘bridging’ between the ‘soft’ human stuff of psychology (attitudes, beliefs, biases, behaviours, motivations, etc.) and the ‘hard’ stuff of strategy (intelligence, decisions, crucial leadership focus and direction, measured results, and required course changes).

The strength of the ‘bridging DNA’ determines the outcome. ‘Flow’ is a term reflecting perfect outcomes – peak performance, success and winning – whether in athletics, business, or war.

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In reality, bridging is never perfect – because humans are not perfect. Therefore, desired results and outcomes are compromised. Perhaps it’s slightly paradoxical that the human psyche undermines strategy, as well as making it possible in the first place.

In our global war against COVID-19, we can already see two particular ways that psychology is compromising strategy: the first is panic buying and selfish hoarding of supplies such as toilet paper, soap and certain foods. The second is non-compliance with guidelines for social distancing, hand washing, and self-isolating when symptoms emerge.

However, we can also see that people come together in a crisis. People are naturally altruistic. Societies rise to meet challenges – especially existential threats. 

The key to effectively bridging psychology and strategy is engagement, which is the heart of the above model. In enterprise strategies, this boils down to engaging people in the formulation of strategy, so that there is a sense of ownership and commitment to achieving strategic success.

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In short, people who understand and buy into the strategy will work toward achieving it. If people don’t understand or buy in, at best they won’t contribute much, and at worst they will actively undermine the strategy. 

As a cofounder of the MIT Innovation Lab, I’ve used the concept of bridging to explain innovation success and failure rates. But I’ve come to realise that bridging psyche and strategy also determines success or failure more generally – in whatever wars we may be fighting – against competitors within an industry, stagnation within a system or enterprise, ignorance, crime, terror or disease.

Let me conclude with a point that all effective business leaders know – love is more important than money. Great businesses create brands and products that customers love, engaging workforces that love what they’re doing and spread the love to each other and customers.

As the new coronavirus spreads among us, perhaps eventually touching everyone directly or indirectly, we will prevail and become even stronger if we embrace our humanity and the values of love, empathy, compassion, selflessness and generosity.


About the Author

Dr. Dave Richards is MIT Innovation Lab co-founder, author, speaker and expert on psychology, strategy, people engagement and leading innovation. https://www.drdaveinnovation.com/


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