Does strategy drive culture or is it the other way around?

By Joe Truncale
In June 7, 2013

Discount airlines have been around for a long time.  Those of us seasoned enough to remember People Express can attest to this.  Even now, Southwest and jetBlue have taken this idea to new levels of success.  And then there is TED Airlines and Song, two discount airlines that managed to be in business for five and three years, respectively before folding up shop.   As Vince Lombardi once said “What the hell’s goin’ on out here?”

TED was a venture launched by United Airlines in an attempt to gain a share of the discount air travel market.  The same is true for Song, launched by Delta.  Air Canada took a run at this as well, launching Tango which lasted only three years (last Tango?).  Why did all three fail miserably while jetBlue and Southwest continue to thrive?  The answer in a word:  Culture.

Culture is an organization’s DNA.  It is hard-wired and part of the fabric and, more importantly, the belief system of every organization.  It is how we think and feel about who we are and what we do.  And when we are asked to change “who we are and what we do”, the result can be, well, disastrous.

Think about this.  Delta actually hired acting coaches to “re-train” their staff to become “quirkier and more spontaneous”, in other words, more like the Southwest staff and less like the Delta staff.  But the Delta culture held firm and the attempt to be more like something they were not came through loud and clear.

In her groundbreaking book, “The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs”, Cynthia Montgomery stresses that purpose is essential to success as an individual and as an organization.  In organizations, purpose says “we are this, not that”.  That affirmation sends a clear message and helps establish the behavioral norms (culture) that bring needed focus to the entire organization.  And what we are not is every bit as important to define as what we are.  The tighter our focus, the more broad our opportunities.   Delta, Air Canada and United learned this lesson, the hard way.

So, what is it that defines your organization’s purpose?  It may just be the most difficult and most important question you will ever address.

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