Lead the way


as the U.S. housing industry boomed, so did American Asphalt & Grading Co., setting off a flurry of changes. In the past few years, the Las Vegas, Nev., USA-based general contractor was sold twice, added several divisions and nearly doubled in size. It was no longer a family-owned business focused on “moving dirt and paving,” says Marty Cook, vice president of operations. Instead, the company became a highly complex, integrated business machine. Rather than continuing to follow the traditional top-down management approach, division managers were forced to work with project managers as they turned the Nevada desert into lush subdivisions.

Not surprisingly, employees suffered a bit of culture shock. “People were used to doing things in the old, family way,” Mr. Cook says. “By instilling more structure, you can get a lot of pushback.”

“People want leadership. They want to see direction,” says Kit Jackson, London, England-based vice president of Northern Europe for the Palladium Group, a strategic management consultancy. Without it, “I don't think you'll ever get through the barriers.”

Culture, including norms of behavior, are built up over an extended period and reinforced by organizational practices and leader behaviors, says Nancie Evans, a partner at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc., a Markham, Ontario, Canada-based firm specializing in aligning organizational culture with strategy. The way decisions are made, planning is done, processes are used and even whether meetings start on time support or interfere with effective project management.

“Culture is a sticky thing,” she says. “It's difficult to change and it's self-reinforcing.” So, if an organization


Project orientation is not an evolutionary process. It's revolutionary, requiring major changes in organizational structure and mindset.



Nobody said changing corporate culture to foster a more project-oriented environment was going to be easy. Worthwhile? Certainly. Painless? Probably not.

“Project orientation is not an evolutionary process. It's revolutionary,” requiring major changes in organizational structure and mindset, says Roland Gareis, Ph.D., head of Roland Gareis Consulting and professor of project management at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration, both in Vienna, Austria.

With revolution comes resistance, and it's up to senior management to show the way.

wants to move to a more project-oriented culture, it's not an issue of changing the individual, but “changing the environment within which they operate,” Ms. Evans says.

And that means more than stocking up on hightech project management tools and bringing in a slew of training programs.

“Introducing a project management culture probably has less to do with the structuring and the training of people, as it has to do with altering beliefs,” says Don Schminke, founder of The SAGA

Win ’Em Over


Despite the best efforts to instill a new corporate culture, some employees still might balk when their organizations take a more project-oriented approach.

Employees often fear that there will be no job left for them at the end of the day, says Jon Hughes, head of the program management group of PA Consulting Group, Washington, D.C., USA. Executives have to show team members what's in it for them and how their career will benefit from learning new skills. “The last thing you want is an unwilling conscript,” he says.

Senior executives should sit down with those who are resisting the change and try to determine where the problems lie, says Don Schminke at The SAGA Institute. It could be that when an organization is constantly changing its focus with a new buzzword each month, some employees simply get fed up.

Or the person could feel that he is losing power and control, and management can help allay those concerns.

The last resort is removing those who resist, Mr. Schminke says: “Either people change, or you change people.”


Institute, a leadership consultancy in Baltimore, Md., USA. “Beliefs drive behavior, and until people's behaviors shift, it doesn't matter how many tools you give them.”

Without a strong leadership team to take charge, the change process can be sabotaged or the managers can be manipulated to maintain the status quo, he says.

Ms. Jackson recommends conducting structured sessions with the organization's executives to discuss:

  • Where they are today in the eyes of shareholders, customers and employees
  • Where they would like to be
  • The stepping stones to get there.

Once the key elements of change have been identified, they need to be “embedded in the DNA” of the organization, Ms. Jackson says.

In her experience, about 10 percent of employees embrace change, 10 percent fight it and 80 percent are in-between. That leaves companies to “convince the 80 percent and get rid of the 10 percent” if they continue to resist. “Ultimately the leader has got to say, ‘This isn't a total democracy. At some point I‘ve got to lead,’” she says.

Making the Case

At the law firm of Morris, Manning & Martin LLP, Atlanta, Ga., USA, Grant Collingsworth, was on a mission to convince his fellow attorneys of the merits of project management techniques to manage their transactions. A partner in the mergers and acquisitions practice area, he spent a year teaching himself Microsoft Project and finding what techniques would apply in a legal practice, and the next year testing it in a pilot program.

While some of his coworkers were quick to embrace the technology, others balked. “The only real skill lawyers have is to disagree with anything,” Mr. Collingsworth says. The main objections were that it took too much time and was more trouble than it was worth. He also heard, “What I‘m doing works. Why should I change?”

Mr. Collingsworth presented the projectized approach as a way for the lawyers to better communicate with their clients. “It creates transparency into the management of projects,” he says. That approach helped generate a warmer reception, as did the rave reviews from clients. And now, the project management techniques have spread from the mergers and acquisitions practice area to intellectual property and litigation areas as well.

What's the Point?

Organizations are most successful in implementing change when the projects are clearly linked to strategic objectives, strict timelines are established and individuals are held accountable, Ms. Jackson says. “People want to see what they are working at aligns with something,” she says. “You need to make it personally relevant to people.”

To obtain buy-in among the rank and file, executives might present the need to become more projectized as a means for the company to become more competitive or even to secure its survival in the global marketplace, Dr. Gareis says.

Employees also may be more willing to get on board if they're told the culture shift will provide an opportunity to do something new or take on more responsibility.

It's not unusual for people to be uncomfortable with change, Ms. Evans says. If something has always been done a certain way, and that way has worked in the past, employees are likely to remain in their comfort zone. To drive through change, organizations need to make the stakes fairly significant.

Try setting up certain practices so work is delivered in a particular way, using specific new tools and methodologies. A change in the system can force people to shift gears. “If they can deliver in the way they always have, why change?” Ms. Evans asks. “But if they can't deliver, then the stakes are high enough to catch their interest.”

Another option, Mr. Schminke says, is to introduce a pilot program with one or two projects.

That gives people an opportunity to experiment and see what works before making wholesale changes. And if those projects and employees are successful, others will want to have a role, and resistance dissipates.

Winning Over the Skeptics

National Commercial Bank, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is currently rolling out a project management culture throughout the organization, says Hosam Al-Yousof, head of the bank's general support services division. To support the change, the bank launched customized training programs for employees, provided tools and now includes project management objectives in managers’ annual goals.

Making the leap to project management has required top-down commitment and bottom-up education. While not everyone has been eager to get on board, “the resistance will naturally decrease as the number of members who buy in increases,” Mr. Al-Yousof says. In addition, “as we can demonstrate to our team members and customers an improved performance in the delivery of projects, there will be more converts.”

Of course, then organizations have to figure out how to maintain those conversions. Each of the 11 divisions at American Asphalt & Grading has its own head, and people tend to “keep things close to their vest and not worry about the big picture,” Mr. Cook says. Egos can get in the way, or turf wars can happen.

Even though the company has been tackling these concerns for several years, he says, the issue hasn't been completely resolved. “It's an ongoing process,” he says. “You can't just do it one time and forget about it and think everything is fixed.”

Part of changing the culture is making sure the culture actually changes. PM

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla., USA. Her articles have appeared in a range of publications, including The Wall Street Journal—Europe and HR Magazine.




Related Content

  • Pulse of the Profession®

    Beyond Agility member content open

    By Project Management Institute In unprecedented times, organizations are delivering remarkable change. Amid a global pandemic and deep economic woes, they have found new ways of working and have improved project performance.…

  • Survival of the Fittest member content open

    By Viturro, Leonor Today's constantly changing world presents companies with the challenge of answering rapidly to uncertain and fluctuating scenarios. Traditional organizational structures and decision-making…

  • Project Management Journal

    Beyond the Network Border member content locked

    By Klaster, Esther | Wilderom, Celeste | Muntslag, Dennis Although network research typically examines whole networks, interorganizational networks are not isolated entities. This study focuses on overlapping regional networks that emerge as an…

  • Project Management Journal

    Self-Organizing Networks in Complex Infrastructure Projects member content locked

    By Pryke, Stephen | Badi, Sulafa | Almadhoob, Huda | Soundararaj, Balamurugan | Addyman, Simon While significant importance is given to establishing formal organizational and contractual hierarchies, existing project management techniques neglect the management of self-organizing networks in…

  • PM Network

    Growth Spurt member content open

    By Smits, Karen Do you recognize your professional growing pains, or your project's or organization's growing pains? For example, perhaps you once dreamed of how a planned project would take shape but woke up…