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Banishing the hyenas - building a programme friendly organisation culture

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The film (adapted from the play) 'A few good men', is about proving a conspiracy to cover up the murder of a US Marine. In the dramatic court scene, the prosecutor proves that “code red” is the  behaviour behind the murder. Despite not appearing in any instruction manual, “code red” is proved to be at least as strong as any written regulation. A shocking example of culture being a product of both the seen, and the unseen.

In my January blog Hyenas in the long grass, I wrote that programme success depends on what goes on both within a programme and its environment, or landscape. No other business process I know has by default, to fight against the rest of the business, which means fighting its culture.

In this blog I am suggesting how a culture can be developed that sustains rather than obstructs programmes.

The hyenas (the challenges) I referred to in my January blog all arise from organisation culture, which is like an iceberg. Some of it is highly visible and typically comprising:

  • Vision and mission
  • Strategy
  • Policies and rules
  • Processes and their information
  • Organisation structure, roles and responsibilities
  • Technology to support the processes

All these describe how any organisation works, yes? After all, this is what is written down, described on websites, taught during induction, tracked, measured etc.

Well no, of course not. 'A Few Good Men' shows that how people really behave in organisations is a mixture of their individual characters, the seen part of culture and the unseen, i.e.:

  • Unwritten rules (how we do things here)
  • Relationships (e.g. formal and internal/external social networks)
  • Beliefs
  • Perceptions
  • Common practice
  • Assumptions

Given this it is not surprising that change programmes are often “seen” as a virus by the host organisation. Culture usually makes this inevitable.

All is not lost, an organisation’s culture can be analysed and changed. But how? Well as is said about making rabbit stew... first catch your rabbit.

In the January blog I said that first convince your CEO. And I mean really convince their heart and mind. This is because a coherent culture change can only be driven from the top. I have not the space here to discuss how to convince a CEO. So let us assume you have. Now all you have to do is change the organization culture

Step one is Analysis; Sun Tzu wrote “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles”.

Professor Edgar Schein (at Harvard) has researched and written brilliantly on this. From this and other work I have developed an 'organisation culture maturity model'. This model can be used to carry out what I call an 'organisation culture risk analysis'. This analysis considers:

  • What cultures there are
  • Cultural components
  • How embedded they are
  • Their level of impact on business operations or change
  • Providing an overall risk assessment

Such an analysis could be used to address a complacent safety culture, or create a culture friendly to programmes. A traditional business analysis would identify the above the waterline factors that need to be addressed. Cause and effect analysis might capture some of the below the waterline factors. An organization culture analysis can capture everything in a structured way.

Step two is to know your desired state (good old gap analysis!). This means:

[a] Adapting change, portfolio, programme, and project management to your organisation. Define what they need to look like when embedded sustainably.

[b] Show what the rest of the organisation’s culture needs to look like when changed.

Step three is to build a roadmap for change to the desired state. It needs show how [a] and [b] will grow and develop.

Step four is to go on the journey. Here Kotter and Abrahamson’s models I quoted in January come into play as this is about making change happen.

Many CEOs may find this unpalatable, but then, perhaps Jack Nicholson was right in 'A Few Good Men' when he bellowed; “you can’t handle the truth!”.

But if this has whetted your appetite and you want to know more, please attend EVA19. My session: Changing the project wasteland with a portfolio culture that works.


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  1. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 23 May 2014, 12:17 PM

    Very many thanks Edward and Jim. I spoke about culture change at EVA19 this week. One issue was persuading CEOs (with head AND heart) of the need for culture change. And here my steps come in useful. In the Analysis step, knowing the type of person a CEO informs how to approach them. There are lots of ways to define character types. The five types I used at EVA19 were: - Charismatics- Controllers- Thinkers- Skeptics - FollowersNB "followers" may look strange, but this type tends to trust their own experience and those to whom they listen.My EVA19 session will be appearing on the PM Channel soon. 

  2. Edward Wallington
    Edward Wallington 17 May 2014, 03:20 PM

    Ah, culture... the heartbeat of every organisation...  or is it the life slowly dripping out of it as change is resisted. I agree Jim, a great blog post Adrian.  Without the cultural backing of the organisation little is likely to happen, or at least significant change will not stick, and folks will revert back to the old way of how we do things around here. Adrians stepped process is a useful approach for change, as well as the ability to win the hearts and minds of the locals, sorry colleagues.

  3. James Dale
    James Dale 15 May 2014, 09:43 PM

    A great blog AdrianTrying to change culture is always going to be challenging and, of course, this not just a private sector problem.  Take the NHS, policing or any public sector organisation and issues of a similar, if not greater magnitude, exist.  The problem that most leaders face is that they simply do not have the time (and competence)  to see a cultural change programme to fruition.  When heat is turned up they are invariably the ones who get burnt, then the baton is dropped or thrown away when the new guy takes over.  Peter Senge refers to this as hero CEO cycle  -  endless change achieving nothing in particular.Jim