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What Went Wrong at Yahoo and Dropbox

Dec 09, 2015

For all the time I spent researching Apple I became a late convert to the Church of Corporate Culture. I always thought of culture as a squishy topic that wasn’t as important as organizational behavior experts would have you believe. Then, examining Apple’s culture, I decided I was wrong. It is super important. Indeed, the meme “culture trumps strategy” has become a business truism, including in Silicon Valley.

That said, I write today in defense of strategy. It turns out that bad strategy—or even challenged strategy—will outweigh the best of cultures.

Take Yahoo (please, as the old comics might say). It had one of the winningest cultures in Silicon Valley. But it got outmaneuvered on technology by Google and then couldn’t figure out if it was a technology company or a media company. It still doesn’t know. Yahoo (yhoo) has twisted in the wind for years, binged on acquisitions, and see-sawed on what to do with its most valuable assets. This morning, Yahoo officially acknowledged that it won’t pursue a previously announced sale of its stake in Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba and instead will sell its core business. Yahoo’s strategy hasn’t worked in a long time.

Another example is privately held Dropbox, which pioneered an easy-to-use file storage system. Dropbox, valued at $10 billion, badly wanted to be a consumer business. It developed a nifty photo-organization tool and bought a neat email program. But the money is in less-cool business applications, and Dropbox was slow to shift its strategy to acknowledge that. It is now closing the two cool tools in favor of focusing on business customers.

Japanese phone and Internet giant SoftBank has been a strategic master, led by the visionary Masayoshi Son. He wanted into the U.S. telecommunications market and bought Sprint, hoping to merge it with T-Mobile. That was a bold strategic move that was stymied by regulators. Up next? Son is relying on former Google business head Nikesh Arora to find him a great investment or three, as Erin Griffith entertainingly and insightfully describes in the current issue of Fortune.

Culture, product development, leadership: They’re all important. But sometimes strategy trumps them all.

This article first appeared in the daily Fortune newsletter Data Sheet. Subscribe here for a daily dose of analysis from Adam Lashinsky and a curation of the day’s technology news from Heather Clancy.

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