This is the fourth of four articles digging into cultures aligned with the four fundamental strategies. Following independent design, stable production, and interdependent delivery, this deals with a culture of flexibility in support of a service strategy. It’s all about doing whatever is required to provide the best experience for customers or guests or whatever you call them.

Repeating from the earlier articles, we know culture is the only sustainable advantage. The following framework for aligning culture and strategy was discussed in more depth in my articles on aligning strategy and culture and Why Most CEOs are Not Strategic Personally.



Main components:


Strategy: Design/Invent, Produce/Manufacture, Deliver/Product Supply/Logistics, Service/Customer Experience.


  • Independent (and flexible, with emphasis on learning and enjoyment)
  • Stable (and independent, with emphasis on results and authority)
  • Interdependent (and stable, with emphasis on order and safety)
  • Flexible (and interdependent, with emphasis on purpose and caring.)

Organization: Specialized, hierarchy, matrix, decentralized

Operations: Freeing support, command & control, shared responsibility, guided accountability.

CEO: Enable, Enforce, Enroll, champion Experience.

In “The Culture Factor” Boris Groysberg et al suggest eight primary cultural styles (learning, enjoyment, results, authority, order, safety, purpose and caring) that fall on the two dimensions of flexibility – stability and independence – interdependence. It’s a helpful construct that benefits from a fleshing out across the BRAVE dimensions of behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and the environment.



A culture of flexibility is – wait for it – flexible. Its people are going to be all over the map. When you focus people on service or customer or guest experience as a higher purpose, when you ask them to care more about customer impact than about short-term results, when you push decisions out to them, don’t be surprised when your managerial authority is diminished. “Customer first,” by definition means everything else second.

Cultures like this help you win with service strategies. They are counter-productive for producing and delivering and probably distractions for designing.


This culture is labeled “Flexibility.” This is the opposite of stability, which suggests either outsourcing production and delivery or at least setting those functions up as separate groups with their own sub-cultures. There is an unavoidable conflict between people wanting to do whatever it takes to enhance customers’ experience and people trying to make or deliver things in a stable, orderly, safe way.

Ritz-Carleton hotels are filled with “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” If you ask any bellboy to fix your broken TV, that bellboy owns that problem until it is fixed and has full authority to do whatever it takes to make you happy. To be clear, that bellboy does not have to fix the TV himself. But he does have to make sure it gets fixed and that everything that happens from that moment on enhances your experience.

Wonderful examples of retail service happen in high-end bridal boutiques. Their staffs’ attitudes are all about making their customers feel like princesses for the day. Expect Champagne and fawning service with wonderful gowns brought to you. These people don’t design the gowns, make them or even deliver them. Their job is to make you feel wonderful.

Leading flexibility

Leading a culture like this is akin to steering a galloping horse. You’re not really in control – and you don’t want to be. You’re going to have a decentralized organization. You’re going to give those decentralized leaders accountability. But you’re going to use things like the Ritz-Carleton’s “Gold Standards” to guide that accountability. Polices are like holding the reins too tight. But letting go of the reins completely is a recipe for chaos. Deploying guiding principles is a middle way that guides your decentralized decision makers without tripping them up.

This is why these organizations’ ultimate leaders must think of themselves as chief experience officers. As such, they are keepers of purpose, the most caring people in belief, word and deed. This is how to get people in a flexible culture to follow you and provide the service required to deliver superior customer or guest experience.