IPMA International Project Management Association
25 June 2018 / 3:41

Project Management Culture: Necessity or Nuisance?

It is often suggested that organizations progress or perish courtesy their culture. In simple words,
culture is a microcosm of unwritten norms, values, behavioural tendencies, and ways of doing things
that are peculiarly characteristics of a system, such as an organization.

In a normal business organization with a more or less stable set of employees, culture will be quite well
entrenched deep down in the foundation of organization and will be at the core of driving actions and
behaviours of the organization; not varying great deal over extended periods of time unless something
catastrophic happens. In fact, people not aligning themselves with the culture may even have to leave
the organization, hence the culture remaining intact most of the times, if not all. In hindsight, culture
seems to be the only element in an organization that out-last most of the other elements, even the
people and leaders who created the organization in the first place.

Project organizations are not different from non-project organizations as far as culture is concerned.
Project organizations too have their own culture which can be termed as project management (PM)
culture. Albeit to certain extent, PM culture varies with the changing eco-system of the project and the
team composition.

In an organization that churns out a lot of projects with team members sharing work across several
projects, the extent to which PM culture varies will be limited across the projects in that organization.
Moreover, PM culture is often influenced by set of processes, hence if the processes are same, it is
possible that the culture does not vary great deal.

There exists no clear-cut definition of what PM culture is? Taking liberty of this vacuum, we define
project management culture as “the set of norms, values and behaviours exhibited by a project
organization, manifested in project management processes, methodologies, and mindset of people
directly or indirectly involved and / or influencing the project.”

Projects are always designed to create something new or some form of improvement to an existing
being. It also remains a fact that projects fail and fail miserably, causing waste of resources and efforts.

This raises the question how does PM culture effects the project management and project outcomes? Is
PM culture a necessity or nuisance? While the question is quite simple, the answer to it is not.

To develop some judgment on whether PM culture is a necessity or nuisance, one way to do is to look at
the pros and cons. While this alone will not provide a definitive answer, yet it will surely provoke some
thoughts to do further work and solidify the understanding. With that in mind, we look at the Pros and
Cons of the PM culture as below.

Pros of PM culture:

  1. Psychological starting point: The PM culture enshrined in processes, routines and methods
    provides a psychological starting point to get on with the work. Pre-conceived understanding
    typically coming from PM culture about how things get started and what typically is expected of
    the people helps remove the initial work barriers. Although, this does not mean that conflicts,
    tensions and confusions about how things should be started or done can be avoided.
  2. Promotes common goal focus: The PM culture promotes a common goal focus. Such a tendency
    helps in channelizing the thoughts and efforts in achieving the final project deliverable. Once the
    common goal focus gets cognitively embedded in brains, it develops commitment and motivates
    people to work towards achieving the set goal.
  3. Promotes accountability due to task divisions: Tasks and their divisions form the core of PM
    culture. Once tasks are identified and divided at an appropriate level, people are assigned roles
    and responsibilities to perform those tasks. The entire process then morphs into a system of
    accountability. Hence, PM culture serves as a platform to promote work sharing and
    accountability.
  4. Promotes staying within defined parameters: PM culture promotes a sense of staying with a
    boundary in terms of work effort, time and costs. Such a boundary-sense helps people realise
    their periphery of influence and level of flexibility. It allows people to understand, what is
    possible and what is not? What can be done and what cannot? Resultantly, people stay focused
    within the given set of parameters and combine their efforts to achieve the common project
    goal.
  5. Promotes rationalized risk taking: Given the time and resource limitations, PM culture also
    promotes a rationalized risk-taking behavior. It allows people on project to consider the risks
    and rewards and make judgments that fit the constraints. PM culture as such enhances project
    completion opportunities which may not necessarily mean achieving high levels of innovations
    and quality. In hindsight, such a tendency stifles creativity.
  6. Melting pot of cultures: PM culture promotes skills-based inclusion of people in project teams.
    That means anyone with the right and needed skills can become part of the project work. It
    allows bringing people from diverse cultures together to achieve a common objective. Thus, PM
    culture facilitates an environment that is truly a melting pot of cultures leading to inclusiveness
    and acceptance of diversity.

Cons of PM Culture:

  1. Hinders creativity: One of the main challenges of PM culture is, it hinders creativity. The boxed
    thinking, constraints and boundaries leave little for adventurous thinking and thus creativity is
    not encouraged.
  2. Promotes fragile relationships: Due to time bound nature of projects, PM culture promotes
    fragile relationships. People often don’t know whether they will work with the same person
    again, so they don’t put lot of efforts in relationship building, hence the relationships are
    expected to be fluid and built on sand.
  3. Documentation heavy: The documentation-heavy nature of PM culture induces lack of agility
    and flexibility. Hence it become nuisance for proactive way of doing things.
  4. Promotes mechanistic work environment: While the division of labour and accountabilities as
    per PM culture is good on one hand, it creates a mechanistic environment on the other hand.
    People may think everyone is equal, but in reality there will be egos. People coming from
    managerial positions and high-skilled jobs may have adjustment issues. It is unrealistic to think
    they will leave the egos on the project doorstep. PM culture does not seem to account for that.
  5. Adjustment dilemmas: People working for long on projects with the task orientation attitudes
    may find it difficult to adjust in a normal day-to-day working environment once they are on non-
    project duties, where not just the tasks but other elements define the working environment.
  6. Reach the finish line psyche: Reach the finish line psyche could lead to stress. There are also
    numerous examples where projects either did not complete as planned or completed late. That
    raises the questions about the PM cultural effectiveness.
  7. Being diplomatic and rationale at the same time: Success of project management requires
    dealing with stakeholders while working within defined parameters. That means being
    diplomatic and rationale at the same time. Having such skills is asking too much for many people,
    as diplomacy skills are learned over a period of time and may vary situationally. PM
    culture induces unrealistic expectations with little answers on how people can master these.
  8. Client owns the project: Another challenging aspect of PM culture is the thinking that client
    owns the project. Literature suggests that the right way to think is that the team owns the
    project and client owns the final deliverables. Unless, there is a shift in thinking on this
    ownership dilemma, the chances are that PM culture will have some unwanted influences.
  9. Promotes hunger for completion rather than quality completion: PM culture emphasizes
    completion rather than quality completion. Often we find that projects go over budget or over-
    time which shows that the quality of work is not emphasized. Quality is not just about the final
    deliverable, but quality of planning and execution matters too. Additionally, it seems use of
    quality management philosophies and techniques have a long way to go in PM context,
    compared to use of quality management in day-to-day management. It requires rethink on
    overall direction of PM culture.
  10. Reluctant leaders: It often is a case that project leaders are chosen based on them having
    served as project leaders rather than their level of competencies and skills. So, it may happen
    that leadership comes by default rather than by design. This is one of the cultural aspects that
    creates challenges for project success.

 

Given the above discussion, one gets the sense that PM culture can be more of a nuisance than a
necessity, particularly as the expectations are well laid out from the beginning anyway. Yet, it is neither
prudent nor easy to reach that conclusion by discussing some of the challenges and benefits as done
above. It will be limiting and hasty to reach a conclusion.

Then the question is, how do we decide whether PM culture is necessity or nuisance? triggers helpful or
hindering environment for project delivery? To understand this, one possible solution is discussed
below.

The solution is being proposed knowing that the culture has a very long life and a well-entrenched
phenomenon for every type of organization, so putting little effort into knowing its contribution towards
successes and failures could be highly worthwhile and financially rewarding in long run.

 

Solution: Culture Trouble Box (CTB)
Suggestion is to setup a Culture Trouble Box (CTB) and collect some hard data to see if the culture is
contributing to problems and if it does, then decide how to cure the ailing culture. I discuss the
protocols and operationalization of the CTB as follows:

  1. Crowdsource the anonymous no-frill inputs: To understand the impact of PM culture, organizations
    should allow staff and stakeholders to provide inputs on problems by designating a
    problem/challenge/issue as caused or triggered by the PM culture. That means people can define the
    problem, categorise the problem as caused by PM culture, and give reasons why they think so.
  2. Run the CTB campaign for 6 months in a cycle: The campaign to collect views on whether the source
    of any or all problems is PM culture and why that is the case, the data collection campaigns should be
    run for a defined period of say 3-6 months. The idea is: (1) to see if people are interested in contributing
    to the campaign, and (2) analyse the data collected in a timely manner to start making needed
    adjustments.
    When management will implement adjustments, it will boost confidence of the people to provide more
    inputs into the next campaign cycles.
  3. Install CTB at an isolated corner:It is important that CTB is placed at a place where people can
    deposit their inputs without fear of reprisals. Staff should be told to not to name anyone in their inputs
    but just provide their thoughts on how PM culture contributed to a problem they are reporting on.
  4. Consolidate data and analyse: Data collected over a period of time should be objectively analysed to
    diagnose if each of the reported problem is actually contributed by the culture. Once confirmed, then
    the problem should be recommended for remedial actions.
  5. Install cultural adjustments: Where needed, appropriate actions should be taken for further
    improvements. Using PDCA cycle will help the cause as well.

Last but not the least: To help develop a broader framework of PM culture and its contributions, it will
also be very appreciated if anyone wishes to voluntarily share the anonymous data on PM culture with
the author. We can then consolidate and perhaps come up with a framework for broader disciplinary
benefits. This is a completely voluntary step though.

Authored by:
Professor Jiwat Ram
© 2018 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.

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Jiwat

Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments such as Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and Australia, among others. Over his career, he has provided leadership in establishing, designing, and delivering Executive education / Master’s, Training, and Research programs.

Jiwat is currently serving on the Editorial Board of International Journal of Project Management.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community by speaking at various events and writing on emerging issues. His work has been published in top scientific journals and Four of his published papers have remained in Top25 most downloaded papers. Additionally, two of his papers have been ranked as the Most Cited article published since 2012, one in the International Journal of Production Economics and the other in Journal of Engineering and Technology Management. More recently, he has published a number of articles on some of the issues confronting project management in various industry based outlets.

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