Organizational culture change is easier said than done

Culture change continues to be a very popular topic. On any given day we can open a newspaper and find headlines about needing to change the organization’s culture. For example, on Jan. 29, 2016 an article by Wendy Gillis that appeared in the Toronto Star read: “Changing police culture begins with who gets the uniform”. Then, on June 17, 2016, another article headline by Ms. Gillis in the Toronto Star read: “Changing police culture easier said than done, experts say”.

It is not just changing a police culture that is difficult. Most cultures are difficult to shift, for a number of reasons. Further, once the culture has shifted, a number of steps need to be taken to ensure the new culture “sticks”. Overall, research continues to find that about 70% of change initiatives fail, and culture change has been recognized as the most difficult change of all.

Here are three myths relating to changing an organization’s culture:

Myth 1: The culture can be changed in a few months to a year.
Reality: Research shows that it typically takes at least five years of concerted effort to shift a culture.

Myth 2: Hire the right consultant and he/she can shift the culture.
Reality: While a consultant can help, the organization’s leadership team needs to be heavily involved, and also ensure that other people in the organization (with the necessary skills) are directly involved in the efforts.

Myth 3: The organization’s culture is monolithic.
Reality: Organizations typically have five to eight “dimensions” of culture, for example, supportive supervision. If a culture change initiative is being considered, what specific dimensions of the organization’s culture need to be changed? And what new culture dimensions are needed?

Successfully shifting the culture is typically expensive, time-consuming and difficult, but sometimes it is THE decisive factor needed to improve the organization’s performance. Our published research* identified seven drivers of organizational culture change, and it also found that some dimensions of culture are easier to change than others.

If you are considering a culture change for your organization, and would like to discuss this with me, I would be pleased to hear from you at

*Somerville, K. and Dyke, L., (2008). Culture change drivers in the public sector. The International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management, 8(6), 149-160.

© Dr. Karen Somerville, PhD, MBA, CPA, CGA, CEC – is a scholar-practitioner with more than 25 years of experience in Senior Management. Karen is the President of Performance Plus Group: .