Using Organisational Culture to achieve Sustainable Change

Notwithstanding the fact that most people have now accepted the inevitability of ongoing change, change initiatives seldom deliver the results that management anticipate. Why is this so?

In this blog, I examine one of the many variables that makes achieving sustainable change so difficult – organisational culture.

The changing face of culture

The 3 levels of Organisational Culture

The 3 levels of culture are:

  1. Visible patterns of behaviour manifested as a consequence of  strategy, structure and systems
  2. Values and beliefs that are the means used to accomplish organisational goals and reflect the goals of the organisation
  3. Underlying assumptions thar are the taken for granted assumptions about the organisational reality

Let us examine each of these 3 layers in more detail:

Visible Conscious Patterns

  • We see culture reflected in the strategy, structure and systems.
  • These are the observable components of culture.
  • These are generally the first levers of change. Because they are about doing i.e. they are observable, they only represent ~8% of the impact on cultural change
  • This is why so many change programs are not sustainable. Change programs need to include the invisible elements of 2. and 3. below

Subconscious Values and Beliefs

  • The values, attitudes and beliefs emerge in the goals of the organisation
  • Values, attitudes and beliefs affect the way people behave in achieving these goals
  • The collective values of the organisation reflect what is important to people who work there – the behaviours that are acceptable and unacceptable
  • Beliefs flow from values. Beliefs also develop over time from symbols, traditions and stories from the past
  • Values and beliefs are entrenched at the subconscious level

Invisible Unconscious Underlying Assumptions

  • The underlying assumptions and beliefs, that are held, are the major drivers of culture.
  • If there is inconsistency between the three layers of culture, the organisation can become dysfunctional and the organisation becomes relatively ineffective.
  • This is evident during times of change when there is misalignment between the new strategy, structure and systems and the values, beliefs and underlying assumptions.
  • When the three layers are aligned and fit with the needs and expectations of customers/clients equilibrium is re-established. This is reflected in the performance of the organisation. An effective organisation is ‘in the flow’ and brings with it a more settled and focused feel.

Change doesn’t deliver because management focus is on the wrong layer

Management generally give 90% of their focus to the visible conscious layer i.e. visible patterns of behaviour as manifested through strategy, structure and systems. In reality this layer only accounts for approximately 9% of change.

The more powerful parts are not so easily seen.  Culture emanates from the underlying values, beliefs and assumptions which dominate and influence the behaviour of individuals. This is represents 92% of the total cultural influences and deals with the invisible unconscious, namely layers 2 and 3 (values and beliefs and underlying assumptions). Unless leaders engage individuals at these levels, any change will be temporary at best.


To obtain a more detailed understanding of organisational culture and how to change it using 10 cultural factors, get the Strategic Fit Culture Module – Creating Organisational Change.

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