Project management and organizational culture; getting everyone on the same page

13 January

While an organization’s culture can provide a solid foundation for its success, it can also inadvertently put up unnecessary roadblocks when it comes to managing and implementing projects. This article examines lack of communication at the beginning of a project as one of the more common culture-based roadblocks and how project management professionals can address it.

Some of the words you least want to hear at the end of a project are: “I didn’t know,” “You didn’t ask us,” “We could have told you,” and “We thought you knew.” These are signs that communication has failed.

There are many questions to be answered at the outset of a project to avoid hearing those phrases: Who is the customer? What are the priorities? What resources will be allocated to the project? What will be included in the delivered product? Are our objectives realistic, or are they too ‘stretched’? Should we aim to ‘satisfy’ the customer or ‘wow’ the customer? When and how should we inform other stakeholders of project status; especially if we are behind schedule? How will we manage changes?  What is the deadline?

As a project management professional you need to obtain, document and communicate answers to those questions to ensure all stakeholders are on the same page. Of vital importance is the vision that articulates a compelling reason for doing the project in a way that resonates emotionally and reinforces motivation. It answers the questions:

Why are we doing this?

What exactly are we delivering?

Who will work on it?

When does it need to be delivered?

Be prepared for resistance because answering those questions at the outset of the project forces decisions to be made and communicated and decisions lead to someone being held accountable. Project management is in essence a confrontational discipline, a fact quickly grasped by many of the participants. Project management can bring order to the chaotic business of implementing change but it can also create problems because oversight is introduced and in many organizational cultures people generally do not embrace being held accountable. One item project managers should intently focus on is getting agreement to the project deadline.

Even inside companies that pride themselves on having the best communication in their industry, you will find project dates that differ from the perceived deadlines further up the organization. In fact, you may well find different dates at every level of the organization.

Management behaviors are a strong factor in organizational culture, and they directly impact project management. Consider the “just-get-it-done” management behavior that is present and operative in many organizations. When reflecting this attitude, leadership doesn’t much care to know how the project gets completed, just as long as it meets the deadline and comes in under budget. Deadlines are often dictated by senior management who seem to have chosen an arbitrary date. The types of pressures associated with this behavior mean that work is often started before requirements are fully understood, or before owners even officially sign off on the project. Estimates are usually rushed, so they are rarely based in reality and can lead to untruthful status reporting because the culture is not one that readily accepts ‘bad news.’ In this environment, it is virtually impossible for an organization to assess just how well it manages projects.

Management behavior is a particularly difficult organizational culture issue to change because it requires a change at the highest levels of leadership. However, change agents can begin the process by employing honest communication.

Management may not realize that there is a problem until you show them. For example, allowing project work to begin while solid requirements still are not in place usually results in rework, large numbers of change requests, and requests for additional funds. Start digging up those numbers and present them to leadership. Be sure to trace the problems — with tact — back to an issue or issues having to do with management behavior. In addition, arm yourself with research into project management best practices to show how the process should work.

Once the strategic questions are answered the project manager can focus on getting everyone on board at the tactical level. Just getting people to share information across boundaries can greatly contribute to understanding the projects goals and objectives to ensure the team and management are singing from the same music sheet.

Each team member can explain the key performance indicators, objectives, assumptions, constraints, processes, and priorities that pertain to their activity. Risks can be identified and plans put in place to mitigate risks and improve the likelihood of success. Even if it only takes 15 minutes each, there’s enormous value in sharing these perspectives.

With effective communication the team will build its own culture by defining what it means to commit to a task, to be on time and to produce a result. Improved communications at the outset of the project provides matchless opportunities for attaining business goals. The Project Management Institute (PMI) asserts that 90% of project management is about communication. More than any other project management activity stakeholder communication is on the critical path to project success and to business success.

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