Project Managers’ blind spot
Over the last 20 years there has been much interest in the concept of corporate culture, mainly focused on what sorts of corporate cultures are most successful and how to change culture to improve business performance. After 17 years experience as a project manager, working in a wide range of organisations and industries, I’ve realised that corporate culture is rarely, if ever, discussed in a project context yet addressing it effectively is pivotal to success.
What is corporate culture? A definition I particularly like is this taken from Edgar H Schein’ book “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide”:
“Corporate culture is taken to be the beliefs, values, norms and traditions of an organisation which directly affect the behaviour of its members. Each organisation has its own unique culture and many businesses are conscious of this culture, which may be based on a sense of community or another fundamental driving force.”
The culture of an organisation is a direct driver of peoples' behaviour as they adapt to survive and prosper. Corporate culture applies subtle pressures, and any individual responds to these pressures by using tactics that benefit their own interests. In a good culture, their interests and the interests of the business will be closely aligned, leading to a win-win situation. Poor cultures result in conflicts between the individual and the business, adversely affecting any business change activity.
Understanding corporate culture, the behaviours it engenders from individuals, and the steps that must be taken to align behaviour with the project, are critical for consistently successful business change. This is not such a problem if project managers are long-term employees, but the use of external project managers is spiralling up, and there is no time for them to learn the culture by immersion.
There has been much research into understanding and classifying corporate culture, but academic terms such as Individual versus collective , Power distance, Uncertainty avoidance , and Dominant values are hard to relate to business. At Dynamic Technologies, we have been carrying out a research programme to develop practical guidelines for project managers in recognising and dealing with corporate cultures. Based on our own experiences, and supplemented by interviews with leading business figures, we’ve defined 12 aspects of corporate culture that capture the main characteristics of organisations. These aspects each have a spectrum of degree. The extremes of the aspects neatly group together, so one set of extremes are often found together in traditional Western businesses (Dickens would have been familiar with them), whereas the other set of extremes are often proclaimed as the standard that organisations should aim.
When we started our research, we thought that the Traditional model was "Bad" and that the Standard model was "Good", as that seems to be the published wisdom. However, we have found that some very successful organisations have cultural aspects that are “Traditional”. We have also found that there are problems commonly associated with the “Standard model” too, so there is no absolute good and bad in corporate culture. What is critical is that the culture is identified and understood, from which likely problems can be forecast and addressed before they become real issues leading to project failure.
We are analysing all common problems (and some of the rarer challenges too) associated with each aspect of corporate culture to provide a practical guide to successful business change over the next 12 months or so, which we plan to publish as a handbook. The results so far show a consistent pattern emerging across different business sectors and sizes of organisations, which bodes well for the book’s general usefulness.
Though we’ve had input from many individuals so far, we still need both personal insights and case studies if you'd like to contribute, please contact us.