Since I have become dependent on getting short bursts of information from the small devices I hold in my hand, this article on organizational culture change by John Kotter fits comfortably into my device-sized frame of mind. First, it’s short. Second, it contains two of the most impactful paragraphs on culture change I remember reading.

The next to last paragraph tells us how culture change works, and the last tells us how culture change doesn’t work.

“How does culture change? A powerful person at the top, or a large enough group from anywhere in the organization, decides the old ways are not working, figures out a change vision, starts acting differently, and enlists others to act differently. If the new actions produce better results, if the results are communicated and celebrated, and if they are not killed off by the old culture fighting its rear-guard action, new norms will form and new shared values will grow.”

“What does NOT work in changing a culture? Some group decides what the new culture should be. It turns a list of values over to the communications or HR departments with the order that they tell people what the new culture is. They cascade the message down the hierarchy, and little to nothing changes.”

Kotter’s right. I’ve seen it happen. Especially the what-does-not-work part. Why? Because culture change is complex and hard to achieve even though the concept can be summarized in two paragraphs. Unless you have the right leader or group who has a vision, personally and publicly acts differently, convinces others to join in, has quick wins, communicates them, and has the determination and passion to repeat the steps over and over until critical mass is achieved, the status quo will not budge. It’s a known quantity – safer and more comfortable than any new unknown.

So, if you are trying to lead culture change, read and digest these two paragraphs because they are accurate and tell the truth. Then buckle up for a long and arduous journey.

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