Define Your Path

What Is the Right Direction to Drive a Culture - Upside Down or Downside Up?

A while back I did an article on how to change a company’s culture (Brown, 2012). That discussion drew from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Katzanbach, Steffen and Kronley about how to make culture change stick (2012). That HBR article stated that for a culture change to stick, the change leader had to do five key things:

1.  Match strategy and culture
2.  Focus on a few critical shifts in behavior
3.  Honor the strengths of the existing culture
4.  Integrate formal and informal interventions
5.  Measure and monitor cultural evolution

While I agreed with all of these, I also added two activities that Katzanbach, Steffen and Kronley had overlooked:

6.  Gain leadership commitment for the long haul
7.  Accept the fact that some people will not like the change

Over the year and a half since I wrote the piece, I’ve had the opportunity to correspond with a few folks about that article, and have thought a lot about what I did and did not get right. The more I think about it the more I realize I made two mistakes.

The first mistake was I went along with Katzanbach, Steffen and Kronley’s approach of numbering these activities, and adding numbers to my own recommendations. Some people took these numbers as meaning that these activities had to take place in a certain order. While this may have been Katzanbach, Steffen and Kronley’s intent, the simple truth is that while all of these activities are important, the order in which they are executed may vary depending on the organization and its particular situation. One of the key drivers of how the order may vary has to do with my second mistake.

The second mistake was that I neglected to discuss the one question that must be asked before any culture change effort begins. It is a simple but important question that drives everything else. That question should this particular organization drive their culture change from the top down, or should it drive the culture change from the bottom up?

Let’s start with why an organization might want to drive a culture change from the bottom up. This approach should be taken when there are at least pockets of excellence in the existing culture, and a reasonable adjacency between where they are now and where they want to be. This approach should also be considered when the organization has the luxury of taking time to evolve the culture naturally by building on what it does best. It is similar to the core capabilities driven strategy approach recommended by people like Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad (1994), as well as the Appreciative Inquiry technique that has become so popular in the last few years (Cooperrider & Sekerka, 2003). In this case, we would want to start with activities like focusing on a few critical shifts in behavior and honoring the strengths of your existing culture. The nice part is that these kinds of culture changes are much more palatable to the people in the organization, and cause much less disruption than the top down approach.

The top down approach to culture change is recommended when an organization needs to make a dramatic change, is under pressure to fix some major issue, or is considered to be largely dysfunctional. This is a more authoritarian approach that follows Schein’s recommendation to change a culture by defining the desired future culture, creating processes that support that vision, and then forcing people to adopt those processes until they become habit (2004). This kind of change also requires that we gain leadership commitment for the long haul and that we get them to accept the fact that some people will not like the change. We also have to accept the fact that many of those people who don’t like the change in culture will leave the organization. That is just fine, however, because they can then be replaced with new individuals who are more willing to embrace the new culture and new vision.

So which is the best way to change a culture? The simple truth is it all depends on where the organization is now and where it wants to be in the future. And if we don’t look to that future and drive towards the culture we want, we are very likely to end up with a culture we never intended.


Brown, J. (2012, November 12). 7 steps to change business culture. Retrieved from

Cooperrider, D. L., & Sekerka, L. E. (2003). Toward a theory of positive organizational change. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship (pp. 225–240). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Hamel, G., & Prahalad, C. K. (1994). Competing for the future. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Katzenbach, J.R., Steffen, I. & Kronley, C. (2012). Culture change that sticks. Harvard Business Review, 90, 111-117

Schein, E.H. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass

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About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.

He can be reached at or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd