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What Eats What For Breakfast in an Enterprise Setting
A while back I saw a thread on Mastodon, a social network that I use, where someone said "Tools eat process for breakfast" while discussing this substack article.
"Tools eat process for breakfast" is a variation on the more traditional "culture eats strategy for breakfast", which got me thinking about what else eats what for breakfast. Although I often see these essays in the format of what eats what for breakfast, the variations got my thinking that there is definitely more than two things to compare and therefore an ordered list would be more appropriate.
The list below is my quick attempt at such a list. Items higher on the list eat items lower on the list for breakfast.
An ordered list of things that eat each other for breakfast
- Human nature
- Tools people use regularly
- Asking people nicely
- Telling people they should do things
I will say that where I am uncertain in this ranking, it is due to fuzzy definitions. Culture, process, and strategy are all very fuzzy terms with significant overlap. Some writers will put significant parts of process in culture. For the purposes of this list, I am defining strategy as asking people to do things from the highest levels of the organization that are either goal related or broadly defined changes in execution style. Process is defined as workflows people use that are not necessarily tools or are borderline tools in the sense of homegrown enterprise-wide tooling that assists in enterprise workflows. Tools people use reguarly means the default tools and applications provided to people to get most of their work done. Culture is defined as everything others might define as culture excluding what I have defined as tools, process, or strategy.
Why is this list useful?
Despite the uncertainty in the ordering, I think this list is useful. If you want to deliver change, and try to do so through something lower on the list, you might be surprised to find that it doesn't work, because you are pushing against a forcing factor higher up the list.
For example, let us say you want people to eat more vegetables, you might try to do so by telling people to eat their broccoli. This might work, but it is more likely that you will be successful if you change what food is available in the cafeteria. "Tools people use regularly" eats "asking people nicely" for breakfast, even if what you're asking people to do is is a smart and reasonable thing to do
If you do a web search for "culture eats strategy for breakfast", you will find a lot of articles that give many more examples.
The "blank" eats "blank" for breakfast framing is one way to think about change in an organization that highlights where you might be pushing against an unindentified brick wall.
Why this order?
The list is in this order because people are busy, have limited time, have poor memory of what has been recommended, and are constrained by tools and workflows provided to them. The items lower on the list require people to actively think and taking action. Some my require direct person to person communication. The items higher on the list tend to be more passive, unconscious and automatic, or the only way to get tasks done. What wins out in the end is what people do without thinking when they are busy and trying to get other things done.
Ways to push for change lower on the list are sometimes the only option
Although the lower items on the list are stopped by items higher up at time, lower items may sometimes be the only option or the best option for pushing change. Items higher up the list are more difficult to change or owned by only a few people. What tools are widely distributed, or even allowed, tends to be owned by a small group. Who can push strategy at scale is likewise often limited to a few people in the organization.
In situations where pushing for change through lower items on the list is the only option, it may be important to understand if there is a pathway for those actions to eventually trigger change higher up the list. For example, can pushing for change to strategy trigger changes in default tooling? Alternatively, can asking nicely for tooling exceptions eventually trigger changes in default tooling?
Are lower items in this list useful pathways to change or dead ends?
Sometimes change in a small number of people or for a short period of time is all you need. Other times you need to change the default behavior of the organization. If you are trying to change the default behavior of the organization and lower items in the list are the only ones available to you, you need to understand if small change can trigger larger change or whether you are pushing towards a dead end.
Will "human nature", "tools", "culture", or "process" eat your "asking nicely" efforts for breakfast?