Spell out ‘how you do things around here’ so that stakeholders know what to expect from you and can change tack accordingly.
An acquaintance complained to me that "they just don’t get it". He was confiding to me about the challenges of his agile implementation project and the friction he was rubbing up against within the organisation. "As we expand it to new departments, they insist they are already doing something equivalent, but they’re not. This organisation has been resistant to change forever."
It got worse. "Now the senior sponsor has just asked me for a detailed nine-month plan on the agile implementation roll-out, plus a comprehensive business case. Once they heard that news, the department heads became totally unwilling to even listen to anything new. I hate the way we do things around here. We need a culture change!" he ended.
Organisational cultures are notoriously difficult to change – just ask anyone who has tried. Even project cultures are tough to improve because we have developed bodies of knowledge, certifications and support. Early on, project cultures used to be similar to organisational cultures, relying on experience and clarity to deliver, but even then friction was felt where the project came into contact with the business-as-usual organisation.
Then projects morphed from being concrete activities with a beginning, middle and end, where we could apply our waterfall methodologies, to more fluid activities, requiring us to be more nimble in a world where goals and the best route forward are often obscured. At the same time, increasing complexity and pace meant that the benefits come from a change deeply woven into the fabric of an organisation. This has led to an explosion in the number of stakeholders affected, and rising resistance to projects from outside it. To counter this effect, we added soft skills and new methodologies because delivering new projects demanded a different project culture to the one that had gone before.
Now projects needed learning, openness, engagement and influence. The culture of projects had become even less aligned with ‘business as usual’. The new projects also generated friction between the different project ‘tribes’, between PRINCE and agile, between RAD and Design Thinking, and many others.
Most cultures, which can be described by collective habits and ritual processes, arise organically from the pursuit of a strategy for success. My shorthand explanation is to compare the culture of a caring and sharing Inuit community with that of a brash and determined New York. You would fail if you implanted either culture in the other place. Once an overarching strategy, outcome or approach is decided upon, actions supporting it are elevated and actions that don’t are lost.
Culture is the cement that holds people’s thoughts, actions and behaviours in a tight range to achieve a shared goal, but every new objective creates friction with what has gone before. I’ve learned three tricks to reduce such friction. These all rely on the fact that everyone is adaptable enough in their thinking and behaviour to fluidly navigate different cultures, whether that’s between home and work or a social club. The secret to making it work is to make a custom culture for your project, then:
- Make your project culture explicit. At the start of every project or meeting, I get people to share their hopes and fears (see Hopes&Fears). In my methodology, I add to the ‘Fears’ column concerns that I think we must overcome to succeed, for example: ‘People will not be open to learning’. As we discuss how to avoid the fears, we create a shared set of ground rules – a kind of mini-culture. Be sure to always engage stakeholders and non-permanent team members when working through this.
- Use a fait accompli. I learned this while creating a culture for a virtual reality project. It simply means announcing the ground rules as if they are immutable fact. If they are intuitively right everyone will go along with them. Find a couple of minor infringements to bring to people’s attention for reinforcement.
- Build micro-habits. My fitness trainer once told me that each time I begin to type, I should check my shoulders are pulled back and my core muscles tight. I kept it up for a month and it became a habit. It worked because I was motivated to succeed, I was able to do it easily and I had a constant trigger. Every time I began to type, it would trigger my action. Try to reinforce your team ground rules with triggers. For example, every time you meet, someone gets to say what they did wrong that day and what they learned. After a while, the ground rules will become ‘the way we do things around here’.
This article first appeared in Winter 2019 of Project journal, a free publication for APM Members. Download the digital issue now (🔒).