Culture Change: 3 Approaches to What Works

culture change

You can’t “do” culture change to your organization. Culture arises from the beliefs and underlying assumptions held by the people in the organization. Trying to change culture by decree or through training programs won’t affect people’s beliefs.

One way to change the culture is to fire a lot of people. That really shakes things up and gets change going – especially if you replace them with new people who come in with a different attitude about the company and the work.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, the only way to quickly and effectively change the culture is to involve the people you want to change in designing and implementing the change effort.

They will better understand why the change is needed and will be more invested in its success. They will better understand what is required of them and will be more committed to taking action. Instead of being the recipients of change, they will become the drivers of change. And because they understand the work and the current systems and processes, they will have ideas on the best way to implement changes needed to support the new culture and business strategies.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. You can come up with the best strategies in the world, but if the people are not prepared to implement them, your strategies will fail. Simply explaining the change won’t work. If you only train people, without addressing the underlying attitudes, your implementation will stall.

Where To Start
First, senior leadership must be aligned and truly supportive of the change, not just with lip service. They must look at their own behavior and whether they are modeling the new values. People watch what you do more closely than they listen to what you say.

But you don’t have to wait until the leadership transformation is completed. It’s possible to begin the organizational involvement while the leaders are still working on alignment if there is a sincere commitment at the top.

Three Involvement Approaches

1. Vertical: Cascade top-down

Top Down

Top Down

This is the typical approach. Each leader on the leadership team drives the change through their own part of the organization. The leadership team monitors progress of the entire enterprise.


– Leaders visibly drive the change.
– Specific changes can easily be tailored for each part of the business.

– Difficulty with coordinated efforts and consistent messages.
– Especially difficult in matrix environments where people have multiple reporting relationships.
– This is a hierarchical process and might be at odds with the new desired culture.

2. Cross-company

cross company


People from across the company come together for a series of meetings to learn about the intended changes and to get their ideas. Often these take a “town meeting” format. However, if these meetings are simply used for one-way communication, where the leaders explain and answer questions, the change effort becomes an ineffective variation of “change by decree.”

– Opportunity to quickly collect diverse perspectives.
– Consistent messages across the organization.

– It takes more time to make decisions on implementation. Momentum can get lost and people might not see the connection between their recommendations and the decisions that are made.
– Tempting to leaders to hand off to HR or a project manager.

3. Large group slice

Large Group Slice


A significant slice of the organization, representing all levels and functions, comes together for a collaborative change meeting where roadblocks are surfaced and analyzed and decisions are made in real time during the meeting. The meeting is designed by a team that is a microcosm of the group that will be attending the meeting. This approach requires that leaders are aligned and able to work together as a team to make good decisions quickly.

– Leaders visibly support and model the new culture.
– The fastest and most effective way to implement change.

– Requires the investment and commitment of senior leaders.
– Requires having faith in the people and willingness to let go of control.

Which Approach is Best?
The best approach for your organization depends on many factors including your resources, timeframe and the type of change effort you want to implement.

Set up a “change team” that is representative of your organization to design and facilitate the change process. However, remember it is important for senior leaders to be visible champions and drivers of the change effort. If there’s a disconnect, your change effort will fail before it starts.

Please share your thoughts and comments below.


Article adapted and reprinted with permission from

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Jesse Lyn Stoner is a consultant, former business executive, and co-author with Ken Blanchard of the international bestseller Full Steam Ahead: Unleash the Power of Vision. For over 25 years, she has worked closely with leaders using collaborative processes to engage the entire workforce. Her clients include Honda, Marriott, Skanska, Stanley Black & Decker, SAP and T.K. Maxx to name a few.

Honors include Inc Magazine Top 50 Leadership Expert, American Management Association Leader to Watch, and the Conant Leadership Award. She has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post, and Forbes among others. Her weekly blog is ranked as one of the top 25 leadership blogs and can be found at

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

  • Patrick Trottier

    Hi Jesse, a few points.

    First, there is no real prof that Peter Drucker ever said that commonly used phrase (Culture eats strategy for breakfast). I believe this was created as a ‘marketing brand’. Some people attribute such to similar messages by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. Some to Thomas W. Lloyd. Some to Mark Fields. However, it is a fact that our own Dr. Edgar Henry Schein stated in his book, ‘Organizational Culture & Leadership, 1985; “culture determines and limits strategy,” which is not the perky quote as marketed, but does articulate the basic message quite clearly.

    As a fourth perspective (to add to your above three):

    In my 30 years of ‘in-the-trenches’ OD practice (non-HR OD) in regards to ‘organizational culture’, I do have some concerns about the effectiveness to ‘change the culture’ directly, or even to do a cultural assessment – as many do and market. It seems to be more effective to embed the desired principles, values, beliefs, etc. into such organizational elements as leadership / management practices, business systems and processes, the business model, the organizational design, policies, decision-making processes, scope of autonomy on the job, human interface with open IT/IS information systems, etc. that give people a consistent and congruent ‘experience’ that then over time ‘manifests the desired culture’.

    For the sake of a common understanding, let’s define culture, as mentioned before in my writing here at Culture University:

    ‘Influencing patterns’ that people consistently and congruently experience over time which emerge as the norms, beliefs, values and practices that guide people in their perspectives, attitudes, decisions and behaviors.’

    An ‘influencing pattern’ is a contingency of interdependent patterns
    that begin to emerge and form into something which has an inherent
    capacity to influence persons and events.

    I believe this is in line with Dr. Edgar Schein’s definition of culture:

    The culture of a group can be defined as a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration… (Schein, Edgar H. (2010-07-16). Organizational Culture and Leadership (The Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series)

    Your thoughts?