How [Culture] Change Happens: A Roadmap of What Works

February 2021 No Comments

Authors | Editors: Courtney, A. (Frontier Design); Williams, J. (Frontier Design)

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This report was submitted by Frontier Design in support of SMA’s Integrating Information in Joint Operations (IIJO) effort.


Change is hard; it humbles us all. Yet, it is possible to succeed. This article explores the why, what, who and how of successful change initiatives. Despite wildly different organizational cultures in the U.S. Navy, Walt Disney, Major League Baseball teams, Police Departments, and in the technology and banking sectors, common practices employed by change champions yielded success. This article will demonstrate the importance of messaging change clearly, demonstrating how to live the change, aligning your people’s behaviors with new organizational values, using data to make change actionable and your organization accountable and cultivating strategic patience to sustain change initiatives over time. We hope this invited perspective provides confidence among the curious that, despite how difficult undertaking change is – and the many competing perspectives in the marketplace about how to do it well – this roadmap can set you up for success.


The bad news: Attempting to change at any scale is hard. Change humbles: whether we seek healthier habits in our personal lives, are charged with implementing new strategies in our organizations, or take part in grass-roots social movements that aspire to create national impact, it eludes most everyone. Seventy percent of change management efforts fail. Up to forty percent of our lives are spent in auto- pilot mode, living and working based on previously formed habits. And yet, a recent Amazon search for change management best practices reveals well over a thousand books by leading academics, management consultants and practitioners such as Dr. John Kotter, Chip and Dan Heath, Edgar Schein, Gary Hamel, Dan Coyle and many others. They offer ways to be successful in change efforts. With myriad resources focused on different flavors of change management, it’s overwhelming to discern what works, why and how.

The good news: We can always count on change. In fact, “the only constant in life is change.” Given that, we should push ourselves, our organizations, and our communities to become better at it. But what does implementing change actually entail, and how will we know if we succeed?

This paper provides a brief exploration of effective change pathways, based on our interviews with change champions, change management scholars, and our many client projects focused on organizational transformation. We hope this invited perspective provides confidence among the curious that, despite how difficult it is to change and the many competing perspectives about how to do it well, it is possible to succeed. We will share key patterns about how change has been realized — for individuals, teams, and organizations at varying levels of scale. By “standing on the shoulders of giants” and heeding the hard-earned insights of change champions, we trust this paper will inform a roadmap for effective organizational change at scale.

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