Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast?

Peter Drucker’s oft-quoted appreciation of the importance of culture is rooted in his strong belief in community. But surely an organisation that places greater value on culture over strategic planning is doomed to failure? Perhaps not. In fact, when it comes to schools, culture devours everything it encounters.

While places of learning need to be strategic, nothing is more important than school culture, what Michael Fullan refers to as “the guiding beliefs and expectations evident in the way a school operates”. Culture is all about people. Therefore it follows that the single most important thing a great school needs is talented teachers.

Great teachers who love working with young people and believe that each one is capable of learning contribute to a culture that, when developed with intentionality, can be more important than curriculum, technology, or strategy. A leader’s job is to nurture what David Price, author of OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live & Learn In The Future, refers to as this “ecology of learning” by recognising what Schein suggests: “the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” You can have all the strategy you like, but without a culture that makes certain values, beliefs, and assumptions operational, change initiatives are destined to fail.

A strong culture is all about relationships and creating an environment around these interactions in which teachers and, therefore, students will thrive. Too often schools put strategy first, usually in the form of introducing changes intended to improve learning. Frequently in these endeavours, undue attention is placed on school structures, but as Fullan points out, such initiatives will enjoy limited success because real change comes about by “transforming the culture”. Teaching and learning are a human endeavour and the environment in which these things happen – what Price refers to as “a hospitable habitat for learning” –  is vital.

The following are some of the key characteristics of a school that intentionally values and strives to nurture a positive school culture: conversation, collaboration, trust, moral purpose, tangible support, appreciation and recognition, open communication, caring and humour. A truly great school not only values these things but actually builds its systems of operations around these key concepts. So, for instance, a school that values these qualities systematically will have a very different approach to teacher appraisal, assessment, and recruitment.

Culture and strategy can co-exist, if the former drives change. As Coffman and Sorensen observe, “strategy is the promise that culture must deliver.” The reverse is why school change too often fails. As Hinde points out: change in schools “is often met with resistance and is doomed to failure as a result of the reform being counter to … [the] school culture.”