Don't believe culture eats strategy? Just ask the 'dead'​

As Halloween comes to pass, the end of this week marks the annual tradition of the Dia De Los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) for many in Central and South America.

In recent years, this annual event has been featured in numerous movies including in the opening sequence of the James Bond film 'Spectre', and of course in the Disney / Pixar film ‘Coco’.


This time last year I went down to South America to experience this for myself. I wanted to understand if this annual tradition was truly something that was something done in passing, or was it rather something still of significant meaning and importance. But more importantly I wanted to understand how and why it has endured?


After a full day of flying, I had landed in Lima Peru and quickly checked into a hotel to rest ahead of few more flights and a car ride which would take me into an area of Peru known as the Sacred Valley. Even after an exhausting journey, I still have vivid memories of walking through a small village to find its local cemetery and trying to figure out how I’d show respect and honour for this holiday and yet still be able to capture some footage and meet with the locals to ask them about it (oh and there was a language barrier, as I barely speak Spanish).

After spending both morning, afternoon, and evening in the cemetery with my equipment, talking to locals, and grabbing some shots, I had learned that this tradition was important to everyone because it was something that had been passed down to them from generation to generation. More importantly they told me it is what ‘everyone does’ or ‘it’s what we do on this day’.


I had honestly assumed I’d see mostly elders in the community on that day, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of young children wandering about, who without direction, knew exactly what to do, and how to behave. It was them tending the graves, and preparing for the evening festivities (you'll see this in my video below). After several hours of being there, many families began to come up to me to ask me who I was, where I was from and if I’d like to join them as they begin to ‘celebrate’ with drink and food. Thankfully, I had the Google Translate app on my phone. I of course, obliged, and joined them.

It was fascinating to hear stories of the dead, and how many of the elderly who were there have fond memories of being brought to the cemetery as a child and how they have passed this knowledge and tradition to their children and grandchildren. Regardless of the influence of secularism in their lives, this tradition and custom endures and is strong. One gentleman I met (featured in my video below), comes year after year to offer up 'beer' to his deceased parents because it was what they loved. He has never missed a year.  He also admitted he wasn't religious. He does it because again, 'it's what you do'.

Upon returning back to Canada, I began to realize how this event, though traditional, really demonstrates the power of culture in society. Culture is ‘how we do things around here’, and it's something that we often overlook when trying to create change in our professional and personal lives. One of the biggest challenges I face professionally is when I’m asked to help change the behaviours of a group within an organization to bring them to a desired state. No process change, technology change, or structural change will be successful unless the culture will support it.

When my most successful clients succeed in their change projects its because they have often looked ‘inwards’ to ensure core ‘causes of culture’ such as philosophy, values, influence, leadership styles, HR practices, evaluation, and managerial sources of power are able to support the changes they require. If these ‘causes of culture’ are in conflict with where they want to be, there’s a strong likelihood that the success of the change may stall or not reach its full potential. This is why it’s important to not only plan out what the future state for your change may look like, but also to ensure you have an ideal culture to support it.

Think of where you work. I bet you can easily come up with 5 things which are so distinct in your office culture that you probably take for granted. These could be things such as how you refer to others, when people go on lunch, how people dress, and even when its acceptable to show up and leave. Culture is huge, and we often overlook it. When you try to ‘change’ these things you often will get significant resistance. Culture is extremely powerful.

It really provided me insight as to why Dia De Los Muertos has survived all these years, and how it will go on for a long time. It’s what they do there, what they’ve always done, and probably what they will always do. No amount of progress, modernization, or evolving beliefs will change that, at least for the time being.

Your Challenge: Think of something you are trying to change in your life. It could be at work, or at home. Ask yourself what external 'culture' factors are supporting this change or hindering it. What about the 'way you do things' would need to be different for you to be successful in changing?

Below is a collection of some of the footage I had taken that day, and some of the exceptional people I had the opportunity to meet.

Happy Halloween and Happy Dia De Los Muertos.

Culturerob oddi