The Top 3 Reasons Your Culture Change Is So Slow

March 31, 2023 Jamie Notter


Culture change doesn’t have to take as long as it usually does, and that’s because we’re (a) ignoring our existing culture patterns, (b) choosing our change priorities almost randomly, and (c) waiting until it’s too late to course correct. We designed our culture change coaching program to help you avoid all of these pitfalls, and change culture fast.


Conventional wisdom says culture change takes a long time, and I have certainly see that play out in real life. But I also know that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve seen cultures see meaningful change in a matter of months, and I’ve seen a complete transformation happen in about a year. So why does it frequently take so long? Here are 3 big mistakes that slow culture change—and how to fix them.

One. We try to change based on ideals, rather than the reality of our existing culture patterns. It feels natural to identify the ideal state and then work toward it, but it rarely works in culture change. You end up designing culture change activities that bump up against your existing culture patterns, and that slows down the change, or worse, stops it completely. Instead, take those ideals and look for internal contradictions.

For example, we see a lot of organizations trying to create a “culture of innovation” without recognizing that their existing culture doesn’t really value the practices of innovation (experimentation, risk taking, beta testing), even though it values the concepts (future focus, creativity). That’s a contradiction. So when their culture change involves creating a path for employees to pursue innovation, few follow the path, because the existing culture pattern doesn’t value the kinds of behaviors that are needed. The solution here is to uncovering the patterns that contain elements that contradict where you want your ideal culture to be. Our culture assessment is designed specifically to shine a light on those patterns and contradictions.

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Two. We’re not strategic about the parts of our culture we’re changing. There’s always more culture change work than we can do at any one time, but in choosing what to work on, we often focus on the areas that are top of mind. Fixing the immediate pain points, however, means the higher-leverage change gets put off, and that slows down the change. Instead, create a portfolio of change items that prioritizes the culture challenges that have the biggest impact on results.

You may need a culture of innovation, but have you done the math about the impact of that culture change on your bottom line? It’s quite possible that there are some more fundamental issues which, if fixed, could deliver a higher level of value more quickly. For example, can your people handle their conflict? Because that gets in the way of change at all levels, so if you wait to build that capacity, you end up losing ground on your innovation processes that you thought were the priority. The solution here is to manage a portfolio of change activities that as a whole will move the needle the fastest. You probably want to simultaneously be introducing small changes to your innovation processes while you are building the base by investing in conflict resolution training for staff.

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Three. We course-correct annually, not quarterly. This, by the way, is why we do a LOT of things too slowly, not just culture change. We launch our culture change initiatives, and next year (at the budgeting process usually) we decide if we are on track or not. In case you hadn’t noticed, change does not care about annual schedules, and for most change activities, it’s easy to see if it’s working as planned after 90 days. Instead, we should be measuring and analyzing every three months so we can shift our resources and attention to the change that’s producing real results.

Remember in March of 2020 when everything changed? We had a client that revised their culture change plan by May. They didn’t drop everything, and they stayed the course on some long-term change activities, like building out a comprehensive project management system. But every three months the management team was evaluating the current levels of “culture friction,” in case they needed to change their approach. The result? Two years after the pandemic, their turnover was near zero and their employee Net Promoter Score went up by 10 points.

In our culture change coaching program, we help you implement these smarter culture change practices, which gets you faster results.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.