Are You Ready for Culture Change? OR Culture Change Readiness

People Resist Being Changed

There are plenty of articles that define culture, explain what a high performance culture looks like and gives angles on creating culture. The purpose of this article is to provide direction for anyone tasked with creating culture change. It is assumed that you understand what culture is, you have decided to make a change, and you want to know how to successfully implement a culture change.

Preparing for Change
To successfully change culture there are some prerequisites to success. These prerequisites include change clarity, change commitment, change capacity, change capability and change effectiveness which are needed to successfully accomplish the culture change. The purpose of evaluating the presence of these prerequisites is to prevent obstacles that would otherwise delay or stymie the culture change.

Think of these Culture Change Prerequisites as due diligence for culture change success. Just as you perform due diligence before any significant business transaction, it’s critical to perform due diligence in preparation for culture change.

Prerequisites for Success

  • Change Clarity – to be successful change must be understood and valued. That’s impossible if the change cannot be explained clearly. There are two crucial components to change clarity.
    1. Definition of Success – This is also referred to as a vision. Unfortunately, visions can be dull, flat and missing critical components. A multi-dimensional definition of success provides clarity about the rules of the game, who is playing and how we win; it’s the Future in 3D. This answers the question, “what does success look like?”
    2. Case for Change – it’s essential that the reason for the change is fully understood by the people undergoing change. Understanding increases the motivation to change and reduces resistance because the reason for the change is clear. The change explanation must be both relevant and meaningful. It helps the people understand how the change connects to them personally and to their view of the organization. The case for change answers the question, “why?”
  • Change Commitment – culture change begins at the top. There must be courageous leaders who are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. Culture is a leadership issue and it cannot be delegated. Without strong leadership, culture change will sputter and burn out. Commitment is needed in abundant quantities in order to overcome the change hurdles, pockets of resistance and status quo malaise. It takes time to do culture change well. In this instant society, the commitment to long term change fades over time.
  • Change Capacity – change saturation is a common cause of organizational dysfunction and change failure. Terrific, talented people reach their capacity to absorb change and they check out. Every person has their own “change sponge” that has a maximum amount of absorption. Both personal and professional changes decrease the change capacity. Employees become disengaged when they run out of capacity. All the leadership commitment, compelling cases for change and brilliant change strategies in the world are irrelevant if you do not assess and manage change capacity.
  • Change Capability – how well does the organization adapt to change? Do managers and leaders have the skills to effectively communicate, model and lead change? Change capability is the organizations ability to do what’s needed for the change to be embraced and the intended results delivered. A McKinsey study(1) of forty projects compared expected and actual returns on investment to change capability and determined there is a direct correlation between the two. Programs with above average change capability realized 143 percent of expected value while programs with below average capability realized just 35 percent of expected value.
  • Change Effectiveness – this is the historical experience of change within the organization. Has there been a pattern of success in previous change initiatives? Change effectiveness is about evaluating the organizational memory for the past successes and failures of change in order to learn from them. It’s about identifying what’s unique and good about the organization that can be leveraged in the context of the culture change.

Assess First
Assess Readiness for Culture Change against these prerequisites, by answering the following questions:

  1. When leaders convey information it is sincere, complete (all information needed to be successful is shared) and truthful.  Yes or No
  2. When leaders make a commitment they follow through. Yes or No
  3. The success of the culture change is the top priority of leadership. Yes or No
  4. The leadership team owns this change and agrees on both the motivation for the change and the definition of success. Yes or No
  5. The culture change has been adequately resourced. Yes or No
  6. There is a shared understanding of the need for the culture change. Yes or No
  7. The organization has a history of adapting to change well. Yes or No
  8. Although the pace of change and extent of change around here is significant, it is also manageable. Yes or No
  9. Leaders and managers are skilled in leading through change. Yes or No
  10. Is the organization ready for this change? Yes or No; why?

Measure Twice, Cut Once
If the answer to more than three of these questions is no, then stop and consider how to improve the clarity, commitment, capacity or capability before embarking on a significant culture change project.

One of the first steps to preparing for successful culture change is to assess the sufficiency of change clarity, change commitment, change capacity, change capability and change effectiveness. In addition to the questions listed above, there are formal assessments that can be used to determine the organizations readiness for change.

The benefit of determining readiness for culture change is that the prerequisites to success can be worked on and improved prior to undertaking a doomed change.

How did you do on the prerequisites above? Are you ready for change or is there room to prepare? And what can you add to or share about this process? I welcome your thoughts.

(1) LaClair, Jennifer A. and Rao, Ravi P. 2002. Helping Employees Embrace Change. McKinsey Quarterly (2002), no.4.

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Donna Brighton is an expert in organizational culture and change. She advises CEO’s, Directors and executive teams throughout the world to rapidly accelerate strategic outcomes. Donna has been consulting for nearly twenty-five years, and has done leadership-and-change projects in twenty-seven industries. A recognized thought leader in the field of organizational change she recently was co-editor for the People & Strategy Journal special edition on change management.

Donna holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership as well an advanced certification in Organizational Change Management. She is the President of the Global Association of Change Management Professionals and has served as a volunteer leader since its inception. She is co-author of the Goal Achievement Workbook and author of the soon to be published Change Management Memory Jogger.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Norman Jentner


    I appreciate your assertions concerning the importance of including emotional factors along with logical and behavioral factors in any culture change readiness assessment.

    Your “Change Capacity” dimension, in contrast to your other dimensions, somewhat uniquely relates in particular to individuals within the organizational system, and to people’s tendencies toward experiences of “distress” versus “eustress” amidst change. Is this correct?

    I note that the power of any change readiness assessment such as you suggest is more than simply what people learn about the organization. It includes also the interaction involved before an actual change process, driving an orientation to and consideration of apparent key factors — by all interested participants — before actually “diving in.” No?

    I describe at how our STEM-based human performance understandings underscore the importance of proactively attending to emotional factors — within a supportive intellectual and behavioral context.

    I point out how failure to proactively assess emotional factors, and in particular what you, Donna, call “change capacity,” is to risk pitting oneself up against a “formidable foe.”

    The “formidable foe” I refer to is, collectively, the many generations of inherited, hard-wired Central Nervous Systems in your company’s workforce that are pre-wired, if sufficiently threatened by the perception amidst change of personal loss, to AUTOMATICALLY shunt most brain resources into its less complex “fight or flight” responses and away from higher-order abstract reasoning — away from the very skills needed to constructively manage complex organizational change!

    By completing one’s “due diligence” in the form of a change readiness assessment, as you suggest, and in particular including a “change capacity” dimension, one would seem more likely to empower individual participants’ input, learning, and personal adjustments to more proactively avoid any unnecessary “hijacking” of participants’ higher-order CNS functioning amidst inevitable change stress. Participants will have been more effectively readied for the challenges to be faced.

    What think, Donna?


  • Donna Brighton

    Hi Norman,

    Great insights. I love David Rock’s SCARF Model to help leaders consider how various aspects of change impacts their employees. To your point, the fight or flight response is often triggered during change which reduces executive brain function. Since we only have five to six hours per week of this precious resource, it’s in the best interest of change leaders not to activate this response!

    The change capacity measurement I wrote about is a means to begin considering the undocumented resource drain. There are an overwhelming number of projects undertaken within organizations. The projects are often resources with teams, technology and funding. However, no one is paying attention to the change impact on the people who are the recipients of the change.

    I was working with a financial institution where we did a rudimentary assessment of all the projects. We determined who was being impacted, the degree of impact and a few other factors. The combined impact of all the changes require the customer service team attend more training in a week than they had work hours. This was only the known projects. There are always more changes happening that take capacity from people.

    When I am talking with senior leaders, I will share the “layer cake” of work. There is the bottom layer that represents the daily jobs that each employee is responsible for performing. The next layer is the projects that are impacting them or that they are serving as subject matter experts which require additional time. On top of that is the learning and development they are expected to do to improve their skills and abilities. On top of that is the space to go through their personal change process to adjust, adapt and adopt the many changes impacting them. It’s no wonder that the workforce is overworked and underutilized. There is no space to catch your breath let alone change!

    Thanks again for your comments,