Changing the project wasteland

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Do you remember playing with shape puzzles as a child? Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole? We are that child. Projects are the square pegs in organisational round holes.

And yet, projects exist to deliver value of some sort do they not?. So why then do projects so often have to live in a world that is and will forever be hostile or indifferent towards them? (with apologies to JP Satre).

Even worse, a project is often seen as a virus in the organisational body, which then seeks to destroy it.

As project professionals we try to succeed in spite of the hostile landscape.
This is absurd; I can think of no other area of business operations where the organisation, by its very nature, sets out to stop you doing your day job.

The project wasteland compares appallingly with operations for example a production line might accept two per cent wastage. Wasted project investment (depending on what studies you look at) are at best 30% and as much as 70%. 
How does this happen? In my view there are sins of omission and sins of commission.

Sins of omission are where the organisation cannot help but try to kill the project as that is how it works, that is the organisation's culture. Some examples are: declaring someone a Sponsor does not equip them , enterprise PMOs tend to last 18 months, projects having to re-approve every year.

Given that most executives develop their careers in Business As Usual, they lack experience of projects to be able to understand them.

Sins of commission are the more insidious as this is where often powerful individuals act against the best interests of the organisation; shocking I know. This can result in; powerful opposition to projects, opposition to an Enterprise PMO as it highlights poor performance, and withholding promised resources.

What is to blame? Well society mostly is, or rather, an organisation's culture that influences or even drives behaviour.  Organisation culture is complex as; [a] there are many facets, [b] there may be more than one, and, [c] culture may be ingrained to a greater or lesser degree. The more ingrained, the greater the influence on behaviour.

I quite like the iceberg view of culture as shown.

When you ask someone how their company works they tend to describe those facets shown above the waterline such as: vision, strategy, values, policies, rules, processes and tools.

In reality, how we do things here, is as much to do with the facets that are beneath the surface as above. I.e. perceptions, relationships, beliefs, unwritten rules, common practice, assumptions and symbols.

Both above and below facets combine to influence how people behave. So if an organisation’s culture is not friendly to projects, how can the organisation be?

How can a project succeed when the organisation is trying to kill it, all of the time.

For us hapless project managers, we can either manage this project landscape, often in vain, or the landscape - the organisation's culture - needs to change to embrace projects.

But there is the rub, organisation culture is really hard to change. Even before you set out on a journey to do so, you need to persuade the CEO and peers of the value of doing so i.e. sell the value of doing the right projects, and doing them well.

What forms of evidence are there?

  1. High levels of wasted investment in projects compared with other business processes.
  2. The many studies showing that mature project capability delivers much higher success rates and hence benefits
  3. Operational examples of what happens when you do not create an environment for success or good behaviours, e.g. Nick Leeson and Barings, and the recent Libor scandal.
  4. Disastrous projects and programmes such as the Fire Control Programme, where poor behaviours was the major factor.

These evidence the risk of not embracing projects in the organisation. Positive evidence might include:

  1. The minutely detailed improvement strategy, training, nutrition, race tactics, etc. that means the Sky cycling team is the best currently around.
  2. The level of trust that Lewis Hamilton places in the performance of his tyre change team
  3. Shell's worldwide safety culture.
  4. London 2012 construction.
  5. The recent Heathrow Queens Terminal.

Winning the hearts and minds of the C level is only the first step. Next is understanding the existing culture through analysis, and modelling how it needs to change. I have developed my Organisation Culture Maturity Model as the means of doing both. This model works like many maturity models and is summarised in the diagram.

Once you have defined your end-state culture, getting it right does not happen overnight nor by accident. As the old lady lost in New York discovered when she asked a cop how to get to Carnegie Hall. "Lady," he said, "you gotta practice".

The journey is worth it, you know it and I know it. Somehow, we need to show that projects too are part of the organisational body to be nurtured for their value, not immunised against.

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Posted by Adrian Pyne on 2nd Sep 2014

About the Author
Adrian is a consultant who’s practice for more than 20 years was the delivery or rescue of Change programmes and the design, build, operation of portfolio, programme and project management capability. Starting in telecoms he has worked in commercial and public sectors: e.g. investment/retail finance, central & local government, diversity, nano & energy technologies and mining. Adrian is a visiting lecturer at Nottingham & Kingston University Business Schools. He has always specialised in and championed the people aspects of our profession, notably stakeholder management and behaviour. In recent years much of his practice has focussed on developing cultures and organisations in which programmes and projects can thrive and not merely survive. Adrian has been a long time contributor to the APM, especially within ProgM, e.g. the BoK 6 refresh. He is a frequent speaker, in the UK and internationally, and is co-author of the Gower Handbook of Programme Management. Adrian is RPP certified and an RPP Assessor.

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