A “Philosophical” Approach to Culture Change

“Philosophy” is word you don’t hear all that often in the business world. So, a few days ago, when I was asked to consult a project team that wanted to improve the client’s experience of the IT department, I was intrigued when the project manager said, “We want to create a philosophy of paying attention to what the client wants.”

Few people would dispute that paying attention to the client is a good thing. The problem is how we get there. By philosophy, it is probably safe to say that the project manager in this example was talking about the values, beliefs, and assumptions of IT employees. He was using the word “philosophy” to discuss what is often called “organizational culture.” But we cannot really change a person’s values and beliefs. More importantly, planning change activities as though we can leads to ineffective approaches.

Only an individual can change his or her beliefs, values, and assumptions. Although some core beliefs and values may remain fairly stable, others shift as we experience life. The beliefs that we have are based on a lifetime of experience lived in certain societies, with certain occupations, friends, encounters with managers, and so on.

When we think of beliefs as something that can be altered through a change initiative, the resulting plan is heavy on communications and training. We assume that telling a person to believe differently, especially when that telling is done by upper management, will cause it to be so. But when we understand beliefs as a product of temporal sociocultural experience, our understanding leads to different ideas about change. We start thinking in terms of how to create experiences for others that will lead them to different learning and different decisions about beliefs and values. We do not know exactly what they will change their beliefs and values to, but we can provide the conditions for change and have confidence that the change will be along certain lines.

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