Architecture Eats Culture Eats Strategy

Tim Bouma
Tim Bouma
Jul 31, 2019 · 3 min read

Note: This blog is my opinion only and does not represent any official position.

The title of this post is a play on that famous, somewhat tired and fatalistic statement that ‘Culture Eats Strategy.’ It’s a phrase that was coined by management guru Peter Drucker, who had the insight, that no matter how elegant and compelling your strategy was, you had to overcome the more powerful force — culture. As was usually the case, culture was the predator, devouring the strategy, leading to the rallying calls ‘ Change the culture!’ Let’s not kid ourselves, those rallying calls fell on deaf ears.

As we all know, culture has a vested interest in protecting itself, guarding against change — especially those new-fangled strategies that are strangled at once.

Despite the power of culture, I believe there is a much more powerful force, an upstream predator to culture — that is architecture.

Image for post
Image for post
The new architecture of the 12th century — flying buttresses.

When I say architecture, I mean architecture (not IT or software architecture), the more general concept of how things are organized, related and built to yield something functional, useful and whole. Every once in a while an architectural innovation takes place, such as the flying buttress, invented in the 12th century, that transformed cathedral building from a dreary boxy small-windowed affair to structures bright and light, inspiring to the divine. This new gothic architecture had an effect on the clergy, the liturgy, and the laity and gave energy to Christian worship during that time.

The first point of this example is that the architecture (flying buttresses) changed the culture (Christianity) and likely drove whatever strategies were relevant at the time. The second point of this example is that the architecture remains with us, long after the culture and strategy are gone. There are tons of examples throughout history, the printing press, the telephone, the internet, etc. While these are specific inventions, more fundamentally like the change in cathedrals, they changed the architectures of how we stored and disseminated knowledge and communicated with one another. They changed our culture.

So back to the main point of this article — ‘ Architecture eats Culture eats Strategy.’ I am of the belief that to focus on real and lasting change, it is little better than a Sisyphean effort to craft a strategy in the hope that it will change the culture. According to our management guru, Peter Drucker (and my own experience), that won’t happen. The better approach is to focus on those architecture things (organized related things) that will force a lasting change. That lasting change will then force a culture change, and strategy will naturally follow.

Applying this insight of ‘architecture eats culture’ to today’s world: I believe that the new architectures of decentralization (call it ‘blockchain’, if you will) will force an eventual culture change and force new strategies. By focusing on new possibilities enabled by decentralization (not that different than possibilities enabled by the flying buttresses of the 12th century), we can make lasting changes. Culture and strategies will follow suit.

If you are in a leadership position (i.e., in a culture position), you need to reflect if you are an enabler or a barrier between architecture and strategy. Either way, you will either change with the architecture or be swept aside to no one’s memory.

If you are developing strategy, stop thinking about how to enable culture change. That just won’t work —’culture eats strategy’. Instead try to figure out what the new architecture is and do your best to bring the culture (or leadership) along. If no luck, don’t worry, because ‘architecture eats culture’.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store