The 9 Clear Steps to Organizational Culture Change

Second of two parts

Editor’s note: If you missed Part 1, see New Study: 96% Think Culture Change is Needed in Their Organization

The bottom line from the Booz & Company culture study is this: 96 percent said culture change is needed.

The challenge is that leaders must go far beyond basic tips, keys, or “levers,” like Booz & Co. highlighted in their study, if there is hope for sustainable culture change.

There must be a better way to build pride, drive out fear, and support the purpose and strategy of an organization with effective culture work. We believe the answer is to build your unique culture foundation.

How do you manage culture?

We highlighted in our last post that there are plenty of frameworks for managing strategy, talent, leadership, and performance, but not culture. Culture has been this elusive, mysterious subject. Survey action plans, engagement events or programs, and other improvements fall short of building a strong culture foundation the entire organization can understand and manage with clarity and speed.

Most leaders of successful cultures learn from experience and other mentors, peers, or experts, how to piece together their improvement approaches because there isn’t a clear guide to follow. While some guides exist, they are not broadly known and applied like other improvement disciplines.

Every organization that excels at building, reinforcing, and leveraging their unique culture in support of delivering sustainable performance has built a strong “culture foundation.”

Building a strong foundation

A Define/Align/Manage framework for building a strong culture foundation is outlined in the new book Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed. Initial effort is focused on a couple of key behaviors, as Booz suggests in their study and infographic, but broader team effort is must be focused on only 1-2 critical performance priorities so progress and momentum can build.

Here’s an abbreviated explanation of the first improvement phase, Build the Foundation:


Begin with the end in mindStephen Covey

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  • Step 1Evaluate your current culture and performance: 1) Define your 1-3 critical performance priorities – e.g. growth, profitability, customer satisfaction, etc.; 2) identify your 3-5 value/behavior strengths and 3) identify no more than 1-3 value/behavior weaknesses that are holding back your organization from achieving its full potential with the performance priorities you defined.
  • Step 2 – Clarify your initial vision: Define your vision for improving results with only one or two of the performance priorities from step No. 1 and how you will build a culture advantage by leveraging the value/behavior strengths and improving the weaknesses. Clearly communicate how you will work together to improve the weak areas since they are holding your organization back from supporting your purpose and stakeholders.
  • Step 3 – Clarify values and expected behaviors: Define supporting expected behaviors for the 1-3 weaknesses that you identified in step #1. These behaviors would be consistently exhibited in your organization if you were “living your values.” People interpret values from their own perspective so define expected behaviors like Zappos, The Container Store, and others.


Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common visionAndrew Carnegie

  • Step 4 – Clarify strategic priorities: Define and clearly share the 3-5 actionable strategic priorities that your organization will focus on to support the 1-2 performance priorities included in your initial vision from the Define steps. If the performance priority is growth, will it be achieved through new products or services, revised sales strategies, growth with current customers, or other strategies. Employees want and need to understand the big picture.
  • Step 5 – Engage your team in defining SMART goals: Engage your organization and utilize extensive feedback and prioritization to define the objectives that support each strategic priority. These goals need defined in a way to support the expected behaviors for the 1-2 weaknesses you identified from the Define steps. For example, if accountability is a weakness, goals should include more disciplined plans, measures, reviews, recognition, and other approaches to support the behavior you need. Goals also need translated to all levels in larger organizations so people understand how work on their goals and measures impacts the broader organization.
  • Step 6 – Clarify and track key measures: Identify a small number of overall measures that support the one or two top performance priorities from the Define steps. It may help to have one highly visible “unifying metric” even if some employees don’t directly influence it.


A culture of discipline is not a principle of business, it is a principle of greatnessJim Collins

  • Step 7 – Maintain a management system for priorities and goals: Most organizations have a system to track or monitor the status of priorities and goals. These reviews need adjusted to focus additional time and attention on the top performance priorities and value/behavior shifts identified in the Define steps. The focus must be on results and supporting the behavior shift through recognition, coaching, removing barriers, etc.
  • Step 8 – Manage communication habits and routines: Transparent, genuine and consistent communication is needed about your performance improvement journey and the role of culture so all employees feel part of the process. Regularly scheduled sessions with two-way communication and extensive informal approaches are needed to emphasize expected behaviors and results. Use these sessions to clarify plans, answer questions, expose rumors and reduce drama.
  • Step 9 – Build motivation throughout the process: Feedback and recognition are critical to the process. Share and celebrate progress in a transparent manner as a standard part of regular communication activities. Confront reality when improvements don’t go as planned and re-engage your team to prioritize adjustments.

Most organizations neglect their culture foundation

Nearly all organizations struggle with these foundation areas. Just ask their employees.

Gallup reports that 70 percent of employees are not engaged and inspired at work. Hundreds of organizations have completed our one page culture alignment road map and there hasn’t been a single one that said they were effectively managing all of these Define/Align/Manage steps in the eyes of their employees – not one! Many of them manage more progressive approaches that don’t deliver the results they hope due to their weak culture foundation.

What are they hiring, developing, and engaging people around if there isn’t a strong and clear culture foundation?

Yes, culture is important, most organizations struggle managing it, but don’t think a few “levers” and “keys” come anywhere close to supporting sustainable change. Manage your own culture journey, build clarity and alignment, and stop wasting energy on implementing tips, keys, and levers unless they fit with your unique culture foundation.

What approach do you have to manage culture that goes beyond tips, keys and levers? Do you think organizations waste time on programs and silver bullets instead of building a strong culture foundation?

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He co-authored the 2014 book Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed. He previously managed substantial workplace culture transformations as an industry executive and was President and Senior Consultant at Denison Consulting. Contact him at


12 Comments on “The 9 Clear Steps to Organizational Culture Change

  1. I think an added “Step” in organizational change is bringing fresh blood to the organization. Companies need to escape the “this is the way we do things” mentality before you can start change. Sounds trivial I know, but when you have long time employees who are comfortable with doing something in a particular way, say, using a piece of software for the last 10 years (with updates of course, but not always), bringing in someone who isnt engrained in the culture may be the only way to move change along.

    1. Excellent point and often just 1-2 changes in personnel can make a big difference but you can judge people incorrectly if the organization is not clear and aligned. The lack of clarity is impacting their behavior and performance since many are frustrated with the lack of a coordinated effort. I always liked meeting with long-service employees and integrating some of their top ideas to break through the “this is the way we do things” attitude. Many of the nay-sayers and skeptics come on board as your greatest advocates when momentum builds and then the people that will not fit stand out even more visibly to their peers (and not just the top leaders). If there is a big competence issue then make a change fast – very fast to build credibility. If it’s behavior issue and not competence then I suggest giving some time to build momentum with EXTREMELY constructive action and coaching so they have every opportunity to come on board (and everyone sees the constructive approach you are using).

      1. I like your sensitivity to perhaps letting the wrong people go, inadvertantly, Tim.

        That fresh blood may also, sometimes, need to be top leadership, for at least one of two issues I mention in my comment, above, and attempt to describe more clearly in my comment to Part 1 of this 2-part blog.

        I welcome your comments to that,Tim, as well, if you care to.


    2. Your point is not trivial but important I think. Even for incremental changes, you need to infuse some new blood to bring in new attitudes and showcase the behavs/attitudes that are valued. Secondly, much of the time middle managers are ill-equipped to deal with changes (psychologically and competence-wise). They need help in that regard.
      I want to add one more point here. The “steps” approach to change does not work if in sequence. Most successful change efforts have many of the steps running in parallel, and top managers need to be aware of how stressful and time consuming that can be as they will be called upon all too frequently to resolve conflicts, keep people motivated and negotiate with external stakeholders.
      Most importantly, if people do not do you in, resource scarcity will. The paradox is that change is most needed when resources are getting depleted but you need resources to effect quick change. So any change effort must plan for this- how do I carry this out in the face of adversity?

      1. Great points. The “step” approach is only intended to provide a framework and you are absolutely correct about these and other details being managed in parallel. The resource scarcity problem is a major hurdle so that’s why focusing on adjusting current strategies / plans for a top performance priority that’s already consuming the time of the team is far better than any general culture plans or additional action plans.

  2. Tim,

    Your clarity is refreshing. and I gotta say your book is even clearer (of course)!

    You ask, “Do you think organizations waste time on programs and silver bullets instead of building a strong culture foundation?”

    My response is, “Yes, many times they do. And there can be two basic reasons why.

    The first reason is as you state: They have no clear culture change guide to follow. That is, they lack information. Your books are great anecdotes to this lack of information.

    The second reason is less informational and more psychological.

    I have attempted to describe this psychological phenomenon in my (now revised) comment to part 1 of this 2-part blog.

    This psychological phenomenon will relate most directly, and negatively sometimes, to your Step 8, above.

    I would welcome your review of and response to my revised comment in Part 1.



    1. Thank you Norman. I appreciate your feedback on this content and the book (thank you for purchasing!). I responded to your other post about the psychological phenomenon and I don’t think I can provide a thoughtful response through blog posts. Your analysis is pretty deep but I would be happy to discuss it further. Send me a note if you are interested and we can connect by phone. Thanks again for your feedback.

  3. You asked what approach we use. Here is mine.

    The culture we all want is one that reflects the highest standards of
    all the good things like industriousness, openness, honesty, respect,
    performance, integrity, commitment, caring, cooperation, collaboration,
    motivation, morale, happiness, quality, safety, and the like.
    Fortunately, this culture is what every human wants to be a part of and
    to work in and won’t want to leave. Most importantly, almost all will
    help to create such a culture.

    Now for the big question. Who lives in the culture every minute of
    every day and is better,able to judge how good it is? The answer is not
    top management or mid-level management because they are not the ones
    living with it every minute and are not good judges. The answer is the
    working level people. The reason they are better judges is because they
    still use their gut to judge while most educated people erroneously
    think they can use their reasoning brain to figure out how good
    something is.

    So, in order to create the very best culture, management listens to
    employee complaints and suggestions and then responds to what was said
    in a timely and respectful manner to the satisfaction of the employee(s)
    or better meaning to a higher standard. The more management does this,
    the more employees will object to anything not meeting the highest
    standards in any way. In so doing, management will have demonstrated the
    greatest respect for employees thus leading them to treat their work,
    their customers, each other, and their bosses with great respect.

    Once employees realize this will always be done, they realize that
    they can influence everything in the workplace. This ability to
    influence everything begets a sense of ownership – that this is just as
    much their workplace as it is anyone’s. In the same way, a sense of
    ownership begets commitment. This process will also satisfy the
    employee’s needs to have autonomy, competence, and relatedness and with
    all needs satisfied, they will choose to become fully engaged and self-managed.

    This is the culture that will vault any company to being best in its industry.

    Of course, management can decide that its job is to direct and
    control the workforce. In this way management will create a workplace
    characterized by disrespect and poor performance. Then management can
    blame employees when in truth management was the cause. Management’s failure to understand its proper role is the reason why culture is such a big problem.

    I agree the much time is wasted on programs and silver bullets as well as lots of other things.

    Best regards, Ben

  4. Greta point .I really appreciated you.I t is helpful for organization Sounds trivial I know, but when you have long time employees who are comfortable with doing something in a particular way, say, using a piece of software for the last 10 years (with updates of course, but not always), bringing in someone who isnt engrained in the culture may be the only way to move change along.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m currently in a PhD program in business psychology with an emphasis in consulting and I am growing increasingly interested in organizational culture. I appreciate the posts regarding the importance of bringing in people with varying perspectives and unbiased opinions as many times consultants play this role. Hypothetically, if those individuals following your steps were not able to come to an agreement on what their ‘organizational culture’ was what would you suggest? In my research I have found that one of the problems in organizational culture is a lack of vision; however, if this vision is not agreed upon where do you go from there?

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