Culture comes last

Best of 2014, first published on October 13, 2014
Oftentimes we get so hung up about the ways that our workplace culture needs to change in order for transformation to occur that it can feel immobilizing. At those times, I find it helpful to remind myself that culture comes last, not first.
–Anita Rios

Transformational change by its very nature requires culture change.  In fact, most of us have heard the phrase: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Right? In other words, we can have the most logical, well-thought-out change strategy, but unless the culture (i.e., underlying norms and values) shifts in an organization to support a new way of operating and working together, the change will fail.

Popular wisdom often focuses on shifting culture first in an organization, but according to change guru and author John Kotter, “In a change effort, culture comes last, not first.”  He says that culture truly changes only when a new way of operating has been shown to succeed over time.

sysyphusTrying to shift the norms and values before creating the new way of operating does not work. In fact, it will result in useless efforts and unending frustration. It can often feel like Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, who was sentenced to endlessly roll an enormous boulder up a steep hill only to watch it roll back down again.

So how can leaders avoid unending frustration and implement strategies that reinforce the new way of operating over time? Here are a few concrete ideas that Kotter shares from his book, The Heart of Change:

  • Use new employee orientation to show what the organization really cares about (values)
  • Promote people who act according to the new norms into influential and visible positions
  • Tell vivid stories over and over about the new organization, what it does and why it succeeds

Kotter adds that “you can create new behaviors that reflect a desired culture. But those behaviors will not become norms, will not take hold, until the very end of the process.”

For me, understanding this fundamental aspect of organizational change that culture comes last, not first, is rather freeing. It helps me focus on what is doable to sustain change, rather than feeling immobilized by thinking that I have to implement culture change first. What do you think?

Anita Rios



2 responses to “Culture comes last

  1. Thank you for your insight Anita. I have not actually read Kotter’s book, but it is now on my list! It is so true that real culture change takes time, patience and persistence. We all know those required attributes of a change agent. And, we do have to remember daily these efforts can most often pay off you mention, especially telling the vivid positive stores.

    However, sometimes, as difficult as it may be, those of us who truly are change agents also know that there are times when some, or someone, has just the right balance of strength and power over the entire process at the top and will stop the most valiant of efforts and progress. Sometimes, it is okay to accept that a place is not ready and that your timing is off and you have to move on,

    Right now, I am also reading about that situation as I am in it. And suggestions from anyone else out there to read I am all ears.


  2. Cathi! So good to hear from you! I’m sure you’re keeping things moving in Michigan.

    Yes, you are right. Sometimes an organization is not ready for a particular change, or your timing may be off, and you do have to move on. I had that exact same experience a few years ago, when we tried to implement strategic workforce planning at the enterprise level. The timing was not right at all and the effort floundered.

    However, I can say that we’ve been able to use much of the research and early work from that effort and apply it to succession planning, so it was not an entire waste of energy. It was also a good reminder that assessing organizational readiness for change efforts is an important and overlooked exercise.


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