Culturally Intelligent Change

What is failed change? Whether it’s a change that doesn’t quite get finished or a change that fades away over time, change that does not achieve the expected outcomes and benefits is failed change.

When change fails, it’s usually because the status quo culture was too large of a barrier. Status quo is a powerful force that always opposes change. Status quo is another way of understanding culture. The underlying beliefs and behaviors of an organization resist change without intentional focus on culture as part of the change approach.

Why Culture is Essential to Change Success

Culture is a result of human being’s craving for predictability and certainty. It develops over time when there is a consistent group of people and is formed from shared history and the learning that comes from many experiences together. This creates the patterns that define the acceptable ways to think and behave in response to various situations.

Change by its very nature disrupts certainty and predictability. Culture responds by attempting to maintain status quo. A change process that uses the power of culture maximizes change success, is culturally intelligent change.

Culturally Intelligent Change = Understanding and using the elements of culture (values, norms, beliefs, assumptions) as key inputs to guide the change approach to accelerate learning and improve results.

The objectives of culturally intelligent change are to:

  1. Manage, minimize or avoid culture flashpoints that create change resistance
  2. Maximize the achievement of business objectives by using culture intelligence to drive sustainable change results

How can leaders, managers and change agents apply culturally intelligent change and understand culture to improve their change success?

Assess the culture & climate both qualitatively and quantitatively

Both organizational culture and climate are essential to understand, but there is a significant difference between them. Climate pays attention to the shared attitudes and perceptions about things like mission, teamwork, and what managers are doing to engage employees. Culture looks a level deeper at the underlying expectations, norms or “unwritten rules” that drive behaviors. Both quantitative and qualitative culture measures are critical. Quantitative data provides objective measures against a standard and qualitative data provides context.

Use the culture data

The quantitative and qualitative data is useless if it’s not applied to the change. Make sure that there is clarity about the current state. What are the primary beliefs and mindsets that exist and how will they support or subvert the change? Once you are clear on what exists, then consider what beliefs, behaviors and cultural norms are needed to achieve the change. That’s the gap, and it is foundational information needed to build a change plan that succeeds. 

We’ve identified fifteen key culture actions that connect with the five key process groups from the ACMP Standard for Change Management.

15 Key Culture Actions


These key culture actions are intended to be layered into an existing change approach. They can also be used as a checklist to ensure that these critical actions are part of the Change Management Strategy and Plans. For a complimentary copy of the checklist, download it here: 15 Culture Actions 

How will you use the 15 Key Culture Actions? Please share your thoughts on social media.

About the Author

Avatar photo
Donna Brighton

Faculty Donna Brighton is an expert in organizational culture and change. She advises CEO’s, Directors and executive teams throughout the world to increase leader, team and organizational effectiveness. Donna holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership as well an advanced certification in Organizational Change Management. A recognized thought leader in the field of organizational change she was co-editor for the People & Strategy Journal special edition on change management. Donna is a founder of the Global Association of Change Management Professionals, served as President for two years and a volunteer Board member for nearly a decade. Combining her love of wine, learning and leadership, she and Scott Beilke created Leadership Uncorked. This powerful partnership delivers extraordinary leadership learning experiences for leaders and teams around the world. Why not uncork your potential and increase your effectiveness?