The cultural change ladder

A step by step process for taking change from zero to hero

John W. Moran

Take the ladder of change into your workplace

'There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.'

— Niccolo Machiavelli -The Prince (1532)


Organizational cultures develop over many years of interaction among employees in an organization. Culture is difficult to observe, but you know that it exists within your organization since it is that ethereal something that hangs in the air and influences how work gets done. Culture also impacts and determines the overall mood of the workplace. Over time culture becomes organizational tradition. Organizational tradition is an ingrained body of customs, beliefs, stories, and sayings associated with an organization. This tradition is taught to new employees as the way we interact and do things around here. Making any change in an organizational culture or tradition whether to introduce quality improvement, performance management, self-directed teams, or a culture oriented to making regular change requires a rigorous process. Unfortunately, the minute we start to make any change to our culture employees quickly resist any change efforts since they fear the unknown, mistrust management, or fear for their job security.

To use the Cultural Process Change Ladder shown below, begin at the ground level of where your organization is today and then proceed to the other rungs to make and build a needed sustainable change to your current culture.



Ground Level – Status Quo

Key Characteristics:

  • Organization does not see the need for any change since business is steady but not growing and everyone feels that life is good
  • Management is oblivious to what is going on inside and outside the organization and it is operating in a vacuum
  • Crises management is the operational mode
  • Organization is somewhat clueless on how their current culture is impacting their performance
  • Programs function in silos with little collaborative interaction
  • Data is minimally collected on what customers think of the organization.

Ladder Rung 1 – Uneasiness

Key Characteristics:

  • Business is static or starts to decline and costs are rising
  • Rumors and anxiety about the need for cut backs are rampant in the organization
  • Customer complaints are increasing
  • Employee turnover is increasing
  • Key personnel are leaving

Climbing to the next rung:

  • Investigate why the business is not growing or declining
  • Understand your current culture and what might be the key barriers to making any change
  • What are the personnel exit interviews telling management about the culture?
  • Contact key customers and understand what are their complaints
  • Start to realize you may have to change something that you have become so accustomed to or the decline will continue to get worse


Ladder Rung 2 – What to change

Key Characteristics:

  • Once you understand what is wrong and what needs to change decide what your organization needs to do.
  • Define why we have to change – what is the compelling reason(s) driving this change.
  • Define a new strategic direction, and decide what the new organizational culture should look like to accomplish it.
  • Appoint and empower a strong senior level dedicated change management leader who is responsible for ensuring that the change is carried out across the organization and successfully completed.

Climbing to the next rung:

  • Begin to formulate a believable compelling message of why the organization must change for all the employees
  • Research what similar successful organizations have done
  • Begin to build executive support for the change at all levels
  • Determine where resistance may be encountered
  • Conduct a few internal focus groups to determine the mood of the organization and their reaction to the message of change

Ladder Rung 3 – Message of Change

Key Characteristics:

  • Describe the change – is it big, disruptive, or just a twist on our current culture
  • Define what the new culture will look like
  • Define why we have to change – what is the compelling reason(s)
  • Deliver the message of change with intensity, passion, and persistence at all levels in the organization
  • Define what this culture change will accomplish by establishing a few key milestones that will indicate success
  • Determine what current organizational behaviors will be kept
  • Describe what current behaviors have to change and how the new ones will be learned.

Climbing to the next rung:

  • Conduct a few focus groups to try out the message of change
  • Make sure all key executives are fully on board
  • Have a plan to meet any resistance head on

Ladder Rung 4 – Selling the Change

Key Characteristics:

  • The first step is to be clear about your purpose and intention
  • Address the most common employee fears
  • Conduct all hand meetings to sell the message of change and do so with intensity, passion, and persistence
  • Measure and review how the change is going on a regular basis and publish the results for all to see

Climbing to the next rung:

  • Start identifying and developing champions who are enthusiastic, open and ready to embrace change at all levels of the organization Begin development of a training program for the Champions of Change


Ladder Rung 5 –Implementing the change

Key Characteristics:

  • Telling employees what is expected of them is critical for effective organizational culture change and then provide support and training to help them make the change.
  • Having Change Champions helps successful change to happen at the operational level and it is helpful for those at the operational level to observe their peers championing that change.
  • Change Champions are trained to help counter any negativity and misconceptions about the change.
  • Every executive must fully support the change not in words but by changing their own behaviors to emulate the new culture.
  • Consistent communication to all employees keeping them informed about the change process helps ensure commitment and success.

Climbing to the next rung:

  • Review the change process on a regular basis and determine what is and is not working
  • Make any adjustments to the implementation process to make it work smoother
  • Communicate any changes and the reasons why
  • Provide extra support to those areas having difficulty implementing the change

Ladder Rung 6 – Sustaining the change

Key Characteristics:

  • Align all key systems so they support the change and the desired new culture – pay, performance evaluation, promotion, etc.
  • Align senior executive bonus criteria so it supports the new culture
  • Rearrange any physical space to support the new culture – break down walls to eliminate silos if necessary


Summary: Implementing a culture change is fundamentally about closely examining the current system, and strategically re-designing it to match the organization’s future mission and goals. Such redesigns and transitions are hard. The first step is to be very clear about your purpose and intention and then convey that to all employees in an earnest and non-threatening way. Motivating employees to make the change is the key to success.


Successful change comes about when the individuals in the organization decide to change their behavior to create the desired organizational culture. This is the hardest step in culture change. Culture change depends on all employees making a behavior and belief change as shown in Figure 2. Members of the organization must clearly understand what is expected of them and how to actually do or incorporate the new behaviors into their work style. Use training to communicate expectations and new behaviors. Mentoring will also help employees learn how to change.