Consider an elastic band that has been stretched between two points. If the elastic hasn’t lost its stretch, as soon as it is released at one end it will snap back. Organizational culture is like that elastic band. We pull and stretch to make changes and then we want them to settle in. However, we need to anchor the change so that when we change focus the changes don’t disappear. The eighth step in Kotter’s eight-stage model of change discusses this need to anchor the change to avoid reversion.

Culture describes the typical behaviors of a group and the meaning ascribed to those behaviors. Kotter describes culture as the reflection of shared values and group norms. All groups have a specific culture that allows them to operate in a predictable manner. Within a group or organization, culture allows members to interpret behavior and communication, and therefore build bonds of trust. When culture is disrupted bond are scrambled and behavior becomes difficult to predict until culture is reset. If a change program declares victory before the culture is reset, the group or organization tends to revert to back to the original cultural norm.

Culture is powerful because:

  1. The individuals within any group are selected to be part of the group and then indoctrinated into the culture. Cognitive biases are a powerful force that pushes people to hire and interact with people that are like them, homogenizing and reinforcing culture. Culture is further reinforced by training, standards and processes that are used to reduce the level of behavioral variance in the organization. Standardization and indoctrination help lock in culture.
  2. Culture exerts itself through the actions of each individual. While in a small firm, the combination of the number of people in the firm and proximity to the leaders of the change make culture change easier (not easy just easier).  However when we consider mid-sized or large firms in which hundreds or thousands of people need to make a consistent and permanent change to how they act, change gets really complicated. Since culture reflects and is reinforced by how people work, real change requires change each how each affected person behaves which is significantly more difficult to change than words in the personnel manual.
  3. Much actions taken in an organization is not driven by conscious decision which makes it hard to challenge or discuss. A significant amount of our work behavior is governed by shared values and muscle memory. I often hear the statement “that’s just the way it is done here” when I ask why a team has taken a specific action. Many of these actions are unconscious and therefore tend to go unrecognized until challenged from the outside. Pushing people away from comfortable patterns of behavior generates cognitive dissonance.

Less power is needed overcome entrenched culture if the change can build on the organization’s base culture rather than having to confront it. Building on to the current culture will often generate some early momentum towards change because those being asked to change see less risk. Alternately change that is at odds with the current culture will require significantly more effort and a greater sense of urgency to generate and sustain.

Kotter argues that culture changes trail behavior. Put another way, culture change happens last. Each of the stages in the model for change are designed to build urgency, momentum and support for organizational changes. Vision provides the direction for the change. Results provide proof that the change works and is better than what it replaced. Continuous communication of vision, direction and results break through the barriers of resistance. Breaking down the layers of resistance challenges old values and pushes people to admit that the change is better. When barriers can’t or won’t change sometimes change means changing key people.  Nihilistic behavior in the face of results can’t be allowed to exist. Kotter finally points out that in order to anchor long-term change the organization will need to ensure that both succession planning and promotions reinforce the change rather than allow reversion.

Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Innumerable people have suggested a corollary that says “Culture eats change for breakfast.” The Eight Stage Model for Significant Change provides a strategy for overcoming the power of an entrenched culture to generate lasting change.

Re-read Summary to-date

Change is a fact of life. John P. Kotter’s book, Leading Change, defines his famous eight-stage model for change. The first stage of the model is establishing a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency provides the energy and rational for any large, long-term change program. Once a sense of urgency has been established, the second stage in the eight-stage model for change is the establishment of a guiding coalition. If a sense of urgency provides energy to drive change, a guiding coalition provides the power for making change happen. A vision, built on the foundation of urgency and a guiding coalition, represents a picture of a state of being at some point in the future. Developing a vision and strategy is only a start, the vision and strategy must be clearly and consistently communicated to build the critical mass needed to make change actually happen. Once an organization wound up and primed, the people within the organization must be empowered and let loose to create change. Short-term wins provide the feedback and credibility needed to deliver on the change vision. The benefits and feedback from the short-term wins and other environmental feedback are critical for consolidating gains and producing more change. Once a change has been made it needs to anchored so that that the organization does not revert to older, comfortable behaviors throwing away the gains they have invest blood, sweat and tears to create.