Culture = Strategy

You might not think that schools could learn much from software companies [1], but there is something instructive about Microsoft’s reinvention over the past five years.

After Bill Gates stepped down, Micosoft struggled under Steve Ballmer from 2000-2014. In 2014, Satya Nadella replaced Ballmer as CEO.

In the pre-Internet era, Microsoft had thrived because they were a bunch of “Know It Alls.” But what got them to the top of the mountain by the time of the dot com bubble (2001) would not take them to summit of the full blown digital economy by 2014. So when Nadella took over, he and his leadership team rethought the wisdom of trying to be “Know It Alls.” Ultimately, they decided that the organization needed to evolve from being a bunch of “Know It Alls” to a team of “Learn It Alls.” [2]

Their strategy was, in a word, culture.

By reinventing their culture around “Learn it Alls,” they also ended up reinventing their business strategy (emphasis on design and cloud computing) and their trajectory (they have advanced 8 spots in the Fortune 100 rankings since 2014).

What does this have to do with schools? For starters, schools typically approach changes in the market via strategic planning. This process generally produces 3-7 goals and a set of tactics.

But the Steve Ballmer era at Microsoft was not lacking in corporate goals and tactics. Strategic planning is necessary but insufficient to catalyze lasting change.


Because “culture is what people do when no one tells them what to do” (credit: Eric Ries).

Which means that no strategy will take root without an enabling culture. Think about it: 99.9% of the time, no one is telling faculty and staff what to do.

But your culture is telling people what to do.

What kind of culture does your school need to evolve in the direction of your aspirational vision?

And what are you doing to nurture that culture, drip by drip?


[1] Consider this excerpt from David Epstein’s exceptional new book, Range:

“The trouble with using no more than a single analogy, particular one from a very similar situation, is that it does not help battle the natural impulse to employ the ‘inside view,’ a term coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. We take the inside view when we make judgments based narrowly on the details of a particular project that are right in front of us. […]

“Our natural inclination to take the inside view can be defeated by following analogies to the ‘outside view.’ The outside view probes for deep structural similarities to the current problem in different ones. The outside view is deeply counterintuitive because it requires a decision make to ignore unique surface features of the current project, on which they are the expert, and instead look outside for structurally similar analogies. It requires a mindset switch from narrow to broad.” (pp. 108-109)

[2] Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s Chief People Officer, talks about this and other aspects of Microsoft’s cultural evolution in this great interview with Adam Bryant.


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Christian Talbot