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It’s not me, it’s you. How to tell when you are in a dysfunctional organisation

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We’ve all been there. No matter how hard you try to make your project work, nothing seems to be going to plan. You are over budget, the deadline has been and gone, the sponsor has lost interest in the outcome and your stress levels have gone into overdrive.

The instinct is to blame yourself. Is it your decisions or leadership that have left your project hanging on for dear life?

You will undoubtedly find some communication error or budget miscalculation, but you should also consider that it is the dysfunctional organisation that you are working for that could be the problem. If so, what signs should you be looking out for?

Escalation and bandwidth

The first clear indicator, explains project leadership coach Susanne Madsen, is when a project professional tries to escalate an issue upwards, but it is not taken seriously.

“As a project manager, I can’t do anything if my senior bosses are being indecisive or mothballing my ideas,” she says. “Another sign of dysfunction is around resources. Are they being taken away from you to be put on another project? Is it happening regularly and chaotically? Are you unable to ringfence the appropriately skilled people you need to make the project work?”

She adds that organisations constantly changing project goals is another disruptive element. “A functional organisation sets out clear priorities,” she says. “Yes, we live in a dynamic world, but you can’t have leadership making changes when the wind blows.”

Another issue is a lack of bandwidth, where sponsors just don’t listen to your expertise or project estimations.

“A dysfunctional organisation doesn’t have a dedicated board or forum where you can unblock issues in the project,” she says. “You are only ever given a short time to discuss your work.”

Programme manager Richard Samworth agrees that managerial weakness is a key sign of troublesome dysfunction. “Projects can only operate in a specific environment. PRINCE2 calls this the ‘controlled environment’,” he says. “It has two characteristics, namely management consensus and management certainty and without them all projects will fail. I have worked in IT projects where the CIO, the PMO head and the engineering head all left in the same month!”

Baz Khinda, commercial director at Wellingtone PPM, says managerial pains can translate into technical misalignment.

“There is no single vision of the truth in a dysfunctional business because there is a jigsaw of software solutions,” he says. “There is no defined methodology or reporting formats. There is a lack of governance, where projects are not being prioritised by the C-suite or PMO. There is no strategic alignment or ROI calculations, with people randomly starting projects on their own.”

Projects as organisations

Paul Mansell, honorary professor at the UCL Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction and former senior advisor to many of the UK’s largest programmes, such as the NHS’s National IT Programme, says projects are organisations in themselves.

“They have many stakeholders, including suppliers, clients, financiers and users,” he says. “From these complex inter-relationships dysfunctional elements can emerge.”

He believes that one of the most important causes of dysfunction is the lack of effective stakeholder engagement.

“Are the people with power and influence proactively supporting your project?” he says. “When it came to the NHS IT project, the clinicians never did like the solution being offered. They were never fully committed and despite being run by experienced project managers, [it was] eventually cancelled at a large cost to the taxpayer.”

Other areas of dysfunction he has experienced include a lack of transparency with decision-makers and a lack of investment in future capabilities and capacity. “On one project, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to do any scenario planning around future options as the sponsors had a lack of trust in where the programme would lead,” he says. “In another – Metronet Rail – there was no single lead company in the consortium, which led to a lack of accountability and ownership of risks. It could never succeed without that.”

Getting out of the rut

Indeed, some projects will be fatally flawed by dysfunction. But is there any hope of project revival if you spot the signs early enough?

Mansell says it is about communications. “This is about people, because dysfunction is rarely the fault of a project document or system,” he says. “One way is to engage your team and all key stakeholders in risk workshops. You need some blue sky thinking looking at all the issues you are facing and likely to face. It is mostly soft rather than hard solutions.”

Processes and technology can also be improved. “Standardised reporting is needed as well as a defined governance life cycle and stage gate process to ensure things are being done and nothing has been left out,” Khinda says. “There needs to be more project prioritisation, a centralised resource management system and a clear route for issue escalation.”

Spotting the signs of dysfunction will be even more crucial post-COVID as businesses crank back into gear.

“Businesses are trying to achieve too much transformation while at the same time dealing with significant attrition. They are taking on too much work,” Samworth states. “Managers are locked in back-to-back meetings and frequently confused by halfway through the afternoon. The sheer overload and lack of focus is a real problem.”

We know where that could lead to – so get prepared.

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