Understanding Your Project Culture

Andy Kaufman, PMP, President, Institute for Leadership Excellence & Development Inc.
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Andy Kaufman, PMP, President, Institute for Leadership Excellence & Development Inc.

Andy Kaufman, PMP, President, Institute for Leadership Excellence & Development Inc.

It is Maria, one of your key stakeholders from marketing. She is asking for a commitment to deliver a project by a specific date. You know the date is ambitious but the way she is asking makes it clear that she is only going to accept a Yes.

You pause.

“Sure!” is the word that slips out of your mouth. But, if she could read your mind, she wouldn’t be walking away so confidently, leaving you once again with that sick feeling of “How in the world are we going to do this?”

After a day of ruminating about the project, you realize that your teams will need something from her in order to deliver on the promised date. Your eyes brighten! She probably will not be able to deliver on her part so that will give you some wiggle room! Brilliant!

You call her. “Hi Maria. You know that project we talked about yesterday? Well, in order to hit that date, this is what I need from you.” You elaborate on the needs.

 It’s time to go for the ask. “I’ll need all this by the end of next week. Can you get that to me on time?” You pause, praying for a No.

Maria pauses. “Um. Well, let’s see. Yes, I can. Sure!” Sigh.

Promises, Promises

Can you relate to the discussion with Maria? Perhaps you spend a lot of time in Maria’s role, receiving promises from people who you know won’t deliver. Or maybe you work with people like Maria, who press you and your teams with deadlines but don’t supply you with the information necessary to deliver.

You’re not alone. This drama plays out in organizations around the world, across industries. In a conversation with a high-level executive at a biotech firm, the discussion turned to how promises get made to investors and senior executives.

Project Culture

It is critical that you and your organization develop a culture that delivers. Relying on crossed fingers, hope, good intentions, and heroics does not scale. The fundamentals of delivery need to be ingrained in the culture.

It’s rather fashionable these days to talk about organizational culture. Let me be clear: your organization has a culture of project management. It’s just a matter of whether or not that culture is helping or hindering your ability to deliver.

“You can hit this date, right?”

What is Culture

Dr. Edgar Schein is the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus and a Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He’s widely credited with coining the term organizational culture.

What is culture, according to Dr. Schein? In short, it’s what has worked. It is the sum total of what a group has learned that works in solving problems. Whether you like it or not, the project culture in your organization exists because it has sufficiently worked in the past. Dr. Schein suggests that culture can be broken down into three levels: artifacts, espoused values, and tacit assumptions.

What You Can See

If you walk through an organization, you can see the architecture of the building, the layout of the workspaces, the type of technology they provide for their employees, and the signs on the walls. These are artifacts—things that can be seen. For projects, you might see methodology binders, organization charts, process diagrams, and computer systems to manage project data. You could follow a project manager around and see their behavior—the actions they take. All of these help define the culture.

What We Say

As you continue walking through an organization, you might want to know why certain things are done. You see that a standard operating procedure is documented (the artifact), but you’re wondering why it’s done that way. These would be examples of espoused values—the stated beliefs that give a sense of what is truly valued in the organization?

For example, let us say you find a form that seems like an unnecessary step in a process. You might ask, “Why do your project managers have to fill out this form?” Perhaps a response would be, “Because we’ve found that the extra step helps make sure we don’t start projects without a business rationale. A couple years back we found that we were wasting too much money on different executives’ pet projects.”

What We Assume

Yet beyond what we see and what is said, there are underlying assumptions that drive what and how things are done in an organization. They are not even stated—just assumed—as if they are obviously a fact or a matter of truth.

All these factors are like an iceberg. Above the water we can see the artifacts and discuss beliefs and values. But below the water we have the underlying assumptions. As with icebergs, these assumptions remain unseen yet deadly if not taken into account.

Before you can change your project culture, you need to understand it. What is above the water, so to speak, when it comes to projects? What are the written rules? The artifacts? The stated reasons for why things are done?

Perhaps tools come to mind, such as Microsoft Project, Asana, or SharePoint. Visible aspects of your culture could also include a project management office (PMO), templates, processes, executive level support, stated expectations, and more.What else comes to mind for your project culture?

In addition, what are the unwritten rules in your organization regarding how to manage projects? See how many you and your leadership team can identify.

You cannot sustain a culture of mass hallucination. Hope is a wonderful thing for humanity but it is a lousy strategy for delivering projects. As Dr. Schein finds that culture does not change until behavior changes. After you and your team have a better understanding of the current project culture, begin identifying the behaviors you want changed, including your own.

It might just help in next discussion with Maria.

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