Culture Is the Key to Making Change Stick

Excerpted from The Heart of Change,
by John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen

Tradition is a powerful force. Leaps into the future can easily slide back into the past. We keep a change in place by helping to create a new, supportive, and sufficiently strong organizational culture that provides roots for the new ways of operating. It keeps the revolutionary technology, the globalized organization, the innovative strategy, or the efficient processes working to make you a winner.

Successful change is more fragile than we think. Making change stick can be difficult in any sphere of life, and if this challenge is not well met at the end of a large-scale change process, enormous effort can be wasted.

Acting Without Thinking

Change is often held in place solely by a team, a structure, or even initial enthusiasm over the results created by the change. However, in large-scale efforts, the gravity is the traditional organizational culture. And the keys are peers – that is, group activity – and not really thinking, which means behavior with roots deeper than rational thought.

All the time, we see evidence of culture and its power. In restaurants, we use a napkin instead of wiping our hands on the tablecloth. Do we rationally calculate that napkins are good for us because they keep grease off our clothing? We don’t, because using napkins is a habit and, more important, part of our culture. At work, if we showed up naked, we would get a cultural backlash from everyone, even though there is probably nothing in the HR guidelines that forbids the lack of clothing.

So, in large-scale change efforts, we use the power of culture to help make a transformation stick. This is extremely difficult because, most of the time, creating a new norm means that you need to change old ones that are deeply embedded. Yet in another sense, creating a new culture is easy because it happens naturally as long as there is continuity of behavior and success over a sufficient period of time. That’s just the way culture is.

Dealing with a Changing Culture

Sometimes when leaders depart, they leave shared values that are cement-like, so when the world changes, the organization has great difficulty adjusting. But the problem we face today is usually the opposite. Employee turnover, business pressures, and disruptive crises undermine fragile cultures, never allowing them to grow sufficient roots. When people who strongly exemplify a new culture leave, that culture can go out the door with them. When people are brought into an organization, they bring different cultures. In either case, a new way of operating can remain fragile or can degenerate unless specific actions are taken to deal with the problem.

By putting people who have absorbed a new culture into positions of power, you create an increasingly solid and stable foundation. Promotions into senior leadership roles help the most because of the power and visibility of those positions. A cycle can develop. A stronger norm of making the right kind of promotion decision leads to better (and very visible) advancement choices, which leads to those who embrace the new culture feeling more empowered, which leads to more of the right kind of behavior, which leads to continuing or better business success, which leads to a more ingrained set of new norms, and so on.

A Surprising Order

To avoid mistakes, it is essential to understand a fundamental and widely misunderstood aspect of organizational change. In a change effort, culture comes last, not first. A culture truly changes only when a new way of operating has been shown to succeed over time. Enterprises often try to shift culture first. The logic is straightforward – if the culture is inward-looking, risk-averse, and slow, we’ll change that first. Then, nearly any new vision can be implemented more easily. Sounds reasonable, but it doesn’t work that way. The vision can talk of a new culture. You can create new behaviors that reflect a desired culture. But those new behaviors will not become norms, will not take hold, until the very end of the process.

This isn’t rocket science. Once you see what works, once you have an optimistic sense that you can help create a better organization, it’s amazing what can happen.


John P. Kotter is a world-renowned expert on leadership at the Harvard Business School and the founder of Kotter International, a change company that helps leaders build the capacity to drive transformation in their organizations. He is also the author of Leading Change. Dan S. Cohen is founder of Stuart Advisory Services Group, LLC, which assists organizations in achieving lasting value from their change efforts. This excerpt is used by permission of the authors.