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Is Culture a Strategy?

The definitions of strategy and culture in the soon-to-come A Spy’s Guide to Strategy:

First, strategy: Big decisions about big objectives. Traditionally, strategic decisions are made by big leaders (like generals, where the root word “strategos” comes from).

Second, culture: “The rules of the game which provide the informal constraints on human interactions.” That’s from Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Douglass North.

North thought culture was important. So important that it was the answer to his lifelong research question, “Why do some countries become rich and others remain poor?”

North said culture governs relationships between members of a group. It determines whether a group becomes rich or poor.

What else does a culture do? Are there non-economic objectives for a culture?

Traditionally, yes. The main objective of a culture has always been to survive attack from external forces. If in battle, the culture’s objective is to win. Hence the renowned Spartan culture. They trained their children to fight. From the age of 7, they went to battle school. And a focus on survival was true in other places in other eras. In fact, the cultural prominence of one house or person usually came down to who (or whose ancestor) was most successful in battle.

But survival isn’t the only external objective of culture.

Often, one culture wants to make deals with another. Maybe there’s trade between the cultures. Or, if they have a common enemy, an alliance. The Spartans didn’t just fight. They also made alliances. They drove the creation of the Peloponnesian League. When the Persians arrived, standing with the Spartans were Thebans, Thespians, and Athenians. An alliance. Spartan culture had to generate good relations with trading partners and allies to be successful.

Two external objectives for cultures, then. One in a zero-sum game: to win a battle. The second in positive-sum games: to develop alliances with other cultures.

When cultures change, it’s because their beliefs about the future have changed. We no longer need 7 year-olds to go to battle school. Instead, we think we need our 7 year-olds to be familiar with electronic gadgets. So we give them iPads.

Or we hedge our bets: We have our 7 year-olds play battle games on an iPad.

Culture does exactly what a good strategist does: it looks ahead. And works backward to today. It prepares us for both zero-sum and positive-sum games. Who will be our partners? Who will be our enemies? How do we win with both?

If culture is a collective set of decisions about future survival and success, then it’s a strategy about the biggest things possible.

Not only is culture a strategy. It’s the biggest strategy.

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