The 9 Clear Steps to Organizational Culture Change

The 9 Clear Steps to Organizational Culture Change

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TLNT and was used to populate CultureU for its launch. See part 1 of this 2 part post: 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 organizational 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 organizational 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 culture 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, but broader team effort must be focused on only 1-2 critical performance priorities so progress and momentum can build.

Here’s an abbreviated, nine step explanation of the first improvement phase, Build the Foundation, to achieve organizational culture change:


Begin with the end in mind – Stephen Covey

  • Step 1 – Evaluate your current culture and performance:
    • Define your 1-3 critical performance priorities – e.g., growth, profitability, customer satisfaction, etc.;
    • Identify your 3-5 value/behavior strengths
    • 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 one or two of the performance priorities from step No. 1 as well as 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 No. 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 vision – Andrew 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 to be defined in a way that supports 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 to work on their goals and measures the impact on 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 greatness – Jim 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 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 organizational culture foundation.

If there isn’t a strong and clear culture foundation, what are they doing to hire, develop, and engage their people?

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 organizational culture change 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?

Need help building a culture foundation for sustainable performance in your organization? Explore our 90-Day Culture and Performance Quick-Start Program, which leverages the most widely used and thoroughly researched culture assessment in the world, the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®).

About the Author

Avatar photo
Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.