I am the only person I know who has actually lived the metaphor. I was on vacation with my family years ago, staying at a cottage at a lake in New Hampshire. At the dock, there were two canoes and so, for a moment, I put one foot in one and a second in another. My goal was to step across the first and move over to the other. And then, as the expression goes, the two canoes started to separate and well, now I understand the metaphor pretty well.
Peter Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and I get the point. Culture is often under appreciated, a point I emphasize in my book, but I believe most understand and appreciate that point now. To me, I see it as strategy and culture are both important and must remain aligned. Much like the two canoe metaphor. You don’t want one foot in a canoe named culture and other in a canoe called strategy. You have to keep them close, or else…
As a practical example, your strategy may call for challenging times ahead for employees all because of the difficult and impactful decisions that await. If your culture is fear oriented and people are accustomed to “happy speak”, rather than a more transparent communication approach, your canoes will separate when more serious and honest messages must be delivered.
Another example is when your strategy calls for expansion into new territories and aggressive growth. If your culture is risk averse and employees are unwilling or unaccustomed to goal driven targets, then it’s the two canoes scenario.
Finally, when a culture is fixed and sees change are bad, then a financial downturn necessitating organizational transformation can leave you at the dock on the lake in New Hampshire doing what I did. Let’s just say that if that situation had been videotaped, I’d be an internet sensation by now.
Keep strategy and culture close or you’ll be a sensation too, but not in a good way.
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