Corporate Culture: A Constraint On Your Project?

By Bob McGannon

You have assembled a highly skilled technical team. After a long search, you have hired an experienced project manager to ensure the project is tightly controlled. Through careful budgeting, you ensure that appropriate funding is available. Do you think you have mixed a recipe for a successful project? Think again – a primary factor that may determine the success or failure of your project is your corporate culture.

Can corporate culture really make that much difference? Think back to the last time you tried to request a special service from – or implement a change in – an organization that embraces processes it has used for years. Did you get very far? Project management professionals can face the same type of resistance to change if they are working with an organization that does not embrace change as part of its culture. As projects are intended to bring about some form of change – a new product or improvement to an existing product, new processes, or enhanced tools – projects are especially threatening to an organization whose culture won’t embrace the transformation brought about by the project’s product.

Should you find yourself in a position where you face these challenges, the following are a few tips to help guide the project manager through this labyrinth of cultural tradition and emotion.

Introducing New Ideas

Although organizations vary in their acceptance of new ideas, concepts and approaches, each culture usually has a means by which new ideas can be incorporated into the mainstream workings of the organization. The introduction of new ideas is usually accepted when they originate from specific trusted individuals or from senior management. The astute project manager will work with the project sponsor to understand what type of ideas or changes they have introduced into the environment, along with the challenges they had to overcome along the pathway to implementation. In addition, conversations with the project sponsor about others who have successfully introduced change to the environment can be beneficial. Creating processes as part of your communication plan to make allies of these individuals can help significantly as your projects move through requirements formulation to implementation.

Acceptance Process for Change

How does your customers’ corporate culture accept new ideas for development and implementation? Many organizations embrace new ideas and have standard processes by which new ideas are spawned and tested. Republic Financial Corporation CEO, Jim Possehl, stresses their process of “Team Storming” to foster and evaluate new ideas. “Managers take their stripes off. Anyone can be critical of anyone else – everyone is treated equally. It is all about the ideas we have to improve our business.” The Team Storming process is for real – employees at all levels of the company are encouraged to generate and support new concepts for improving Republic’s services and image in the marketplace. Possehl uses the process as a great “organizational equalizer”; line employees openly question ideas surfaced by senior management with the same vigor as the managers question new ideas from their employees. “It makes for a very dynamic and trusting workplace,” states Possehl.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some companies only consider ideas that have come through certain channels within the company such as marketing or other areas with a specific mission to drive change within the company. These organizations usually require screening processes to have been executed, such as market evaluations or comparative data analysis, before changes are considered.

As a project manager, researching what the acceptance process is for your customer’s organization can be instrumental to ensuring your project proceeds smoothly. In the first example stated here, no project would progress very far without the requirements and final solution having been through a “team storming” exercise involving a wide variety of employees and managers. Conversely, no project would be successful in the second scenario without obtaining the support of the organizational areas that normally sponsor change.

Acceptance of risks

Organizations vary widely in the degree of risk aversion that is inherent in their culture. This can be a product of the individuals at the top of the organizational pyramid, or could be a product of the industry itself. High-technology industries are more likely to engage in risk (as demonstrated by the recent fallout in the “dot.com” world) than a more traditional industry like insurance. In addition, aversion to risk can vary widely based on the type of risk being considered. In a very competitive area where major industry players are “leap-frogging” each other such as chip development, risk elements that prolong the time required to complete a project would be avoided at almost all cost. Conversely, a businessperson that is working in an area where price is the highest competitive factor will have difficulty accepting risks that affect project cost.

What is being discussed here is not only balancing the triple constraints (time, resources and scope), but also prioritizing them and understanding the magnitude of flexibility that exists within the triple constraints. Each organizational culture and the environment in which they operate will determine the flexibility allowed, and in turn will determine how much and what type of risk they will accept. Finding this through interviews, the examination of past projects and using carefully placed questions with key stakeholders can help the project manager navigate the areas where the organization will accept risk when planning and executing your projects.

Prioritization – Continuity in Implementing Change

Most all organizations have some form of prioritization scheme that determines what projects are funded through to implementation, which projects are candidates for cancellation during execution, and which may not even be funded in the first place. Many project managers benefit from working within an environment where the prioritization scheme is well defined, is accepted and followed by the management team. Others have to work their way through prioritization systems that aren’t as well defined – some to the degree that project prioritization is more or less a random set of decisions made by a single manager, or series of managers, each with their own budgets.

Understanding the prioritization scheme (or lack thereof) can be useful for the project manager. Does your sponsor have the authority to make project prioritization decisions? If so, what are the most important business goals to that sponsor? If your sponsor doesn’t directly make prioritization decisions, does he/she know what the current considerations are for making prioritization decisions?

Knowing this information can be vital to a project’s ongoing survival, and can be used to further the cause of the project. Project status reports, milestone items, and interim deliverables can be set (or potentially changed during the course of the project) to keep in alignment with the prioritization scheme at any given time. Keeping track of the prioritization and modifying your project management approach (within reason) to conform to important business considerations can mean the difference between a successful installation and a sudden search for a new project to tackle.

Understanding corporate culture can be a difficult but necessary part of a project manager’s daily business. As a project manager, if you’re able to understand how ideas are introduced to the business, how change is accommodated, what type of risks are tolerated and which aren’t, and how and by whom business initiatives are prioritized, you will be able to significantly increase your chances of delivering projects successfully.

Bob McGannon is Vice-President and cofounder of Mindavation. Mindavation provides project management training and consulting, team building, leadership and creativity workshops to improve team productivity. Mindavation can be reached via the web at www.mindavation.com or by calling 1-866-888-MIND.

 

The Mindavation Foundation is proud to donate 5% of profits towards development of youth leaders.
Copyright © 2011 Mindavation - All rights reserved.