Project management culture
an anthropological perspective
by Nicholas R. Schacht, PMP
THE CURRENT EMPHASIS on trying to implement project management successfully by creating a vigorous “project management culture” raises numerous questions. What is “culture”? And, within the context of corporate, national, and technological cultures, what does a “project management culture” entail? Can we be sure that the steps we take to implement project management cultures will have the intended effect?
Viewing successful cultures through the broader lens of history gives us an understanding of common elements that have contributed to their success, longevity, and vigor. On a societal level, cultural change takes place on an evolutionary scale, often by chance. In organizations, however, we try to drive change to meet specific organizational needs. The key to conscious cultural change and implementation is to understand which elements of a culture one wishes to affect, and to structure the change intervention accordingly. Changing our organizational culture—implementing project management—must be accelerated and focused. To that end, understanding how successful cultures survive is critical to implementing project management effectively.
There are many examples of cultures that have been more successful, more viable, or simply more tenacious than others. This article compares ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Egyptian dynasties, the Imperial Chinese dynasties, the British Empire, and American culture from the 1600s through the present.
These six cultures demonstrate overall cultural success, based on their historical endurance, size and breadth of impact throughout the world and the extent to which they have provided a legacy for today's cultures. An examination yields eight common factors that contribute to cultural success and which, when absent, appear to contribute to cultural decline and dissolution.
Rules for Successful Culture Implementation
The success factors examined here can be summarized in a set of rules for organizational culture change. Following every one of these precepts is not essential—organizations should choose those with the greatest potential impact. However, the more of these rules that are followed, the greater the chances for successful implementation.
■ Become a learning organization. Embrace new ideas, new concepts, new techniques, and make them available to everybody.
■ Establish clear communications processes and media. Require people to use them, and don't accept communication outside those channels.
■ Record and praise accomplishments and heroes. Use past successes as models for current and future efforts. Ensure heroes thoroughly support and demonstrate the concepts required in the new culture.
■ Establish a flexible, central structure. Ensure the structure provides a critical core for all implementation efforts.
■ Accept risk and proceed judiciously. Strive to extend the culture throughout the organization, despite the inherent risk of change.
■ Know and publish boundaries for the culture. Ensure a common understanding of what the culture is intended to be, and what it isn't.
■ Evaluate and prove the economic value of the culture.
■ Involve everyone.
Successful Cultures Are Learning Cultures. Without exception, the six cultures listed above demonstrate a propensity to learn and to apply new knowledge and skills. They invent, borrow, steal, or copy ideas, practices, and technologies, tailor them, and put them to work. Additionally, these cultures are dedicated to educating their members. Education plays an important part in disseminating the new ideas and skills so that all may apply them for the benefit of society. In fact, the point at which a society begins to restrict knowledge can be seen as one of the earliest signs of its downfall.
Establishing a project management culture, therefore, requires learning from within one's organization, from one's peers, and from one's competitors. It requires the evaluation and assimilation of new concepts and techniques, and their subsequent adaptation. Finally, it requires a concerted effort to fully educate all members of the organization about their specific responsibilities for and involvement in project management. While project managers are the “headliners” in project management process, individuals at all levels and in all parts of the organization contribute to projects in one way or another, and must be educated and formally involved.
Communication Is a Critical Factor. The Greek and Roman cultures, as well as the Egyptian and Chinese, used written language extensively in times when written languages were unknown in many of their contemporary cultures. Through a standard written language, these cultures were able to preserve and hand down critical elements of history, literature, myth, and guidance that served to provide cultural continuity. In Imperial China in particular, a standard written language was the single most critical element in unifying millions of people across what could otherwise have been thousands of separate cultures. Each subculture retained many of its own distinguishing characteristics, but across the Chinese empire the written language provided one common tool for unification. In contemporary American society, communication processes and media are responsible, more than any other factor, for the unprecedented spread of American culture around the globe.
Establishing a project management culture requires both communication mechanisms (media) and tools. The media are best provided by properly structuring the project management process so that it facilitates information inflow and outflow, and so that specific information requirements are identified clearly. Additionally, the organization must structure vertical lines of communication both within project teams and upward through the organization's executive ranks. The organization must adopt project-based tools that allow project teams in various environments to communicate across the organization with a common vocabulary and a common structure. Finally, the organization must address the manner in which individuals and groups communicate independent of established media, and ensure these nonmediated communications contribute to the overall goals of establishing a project management culture.
Successful Cultures Have a Record of Accomplishments and Heroes. Each of the six cultures achieved a remarkable record of success, which was evidenced in highly visible accomplishments. Kenneth Clark (Civilization, HarperCollins, 1969) says that those achievements form an underpinning of cultural identity across centuries and serve as constant reminders of the greatness of a society. Its citizens often use prior achievements as models or challenges for current endeavors.
Efforts to institutionalize project management should highlight historical project successes and tie those successes to currently desired changes in behavior. Successful projects can become models for future projects as the organization's project managers learn from their predecessors.
The six cultures all have rich traditions of heroes and myths that are passed from one generation to the next. No matter if heroes are fictional or factual, their “existence” is critical to the continuance of a society. Just as accomplishments provide a sense of cultural identity for a society as a whole, heroes provide models for individuals. As a society develops, its heroes evolve to continually evoke the current definition of the “ideal” citizen. In some cases, heroes are juxtaposed with a society's great accomplishments. In others, heroes are society's most notable leaders.
Individuals look to their organization's heroes as blueprints of desired knowledge and competence. Just as an organization should remember successful projects, it should identify and laud those project managers who have significantly contributed to its success.
A critical aspect of implementing a project management culture is selecting heroes carefully and identifying individuals who have demonstrated the behaviors desired from today's project managers.
Cultures Cannot Endure Without Structure. Much of cultural success is built on individual effort and achievement, but a broader structure is required. Individuals die (or retire), and if the society has no means of documenting and passing down the process by which the individual succeeded, that capability may be lost forever. Both the Chinese and the Egyptian cultures were able to endure through millennia because they established clear, structured bureaucracies that outlived individual leaders and citizens. While a bureaucracy cannot become too intense, for a society will not be able to support it, some level of standardization and structure is required to provide continuity between generations.
Project management structure can be achieved both through organization and documentation. The project management implementation effort should create some centralized structure to support the growth of project management across the organization. This structure should endure regardless of the people occupying organizational roles at any specific point in time. Additionally, by creating and documenting a standard process for project management, an organization can ensure that the tools and techniques learned by its project managers will be available to be applied by others. Both structure and documentation should be flexible, and must adapt to change as an organization continues to gain experience with project management.
Successful Cultures Are Risk-Accepting. To endure, grow and prosper, a culture must take risks confidently and knowledgeably. Each of the six cultures studied here displays a record of physical growth as it extended itself across vast geographic areas. This growth often came at substantial but justifiable risk. In fact, risk was involved as each society developed through learning new skills, concepts and practices. Change always brings risk, based on the abandonment of the familiar and unknown consequences of the change. There is always a chance that the new ways may not work as well as the old.
A project management culture must be risk-accepting to take root throughout an organization. Implementing project management entails substantial political, financial and technical risk. There is high risk for the first organizational elements to adopt the new culture. Not only must they let go of established, familiar practices, they risk disenfranchising individuals who refuse to accept the new ways. It is only by persevering in spite of that risk that the new culture can flourish; however, as implementation proceeds across more organizational elements and a successful track record is established, risk decreases markedly.
Establishing Boundaries is Also Critical. The counterweight to growth and change is containment. There are many historical examples of successful cultures that simply got too large and spread themselves too thinly—the Greek, Roman, and British empires are examples. If a society or culture becomes too large, it loses its uniqueness and, ultimately, its ability to control its own destiny. Young, healthy cultures often clearly define their areas of focus and emphasis. As it matures, a society often believes that it can accomplish everything; it cannot. When a culture becomes too large and too diverse, its efforts to standardize and retain a clear vision become impossible tasks. Eventually, the society begins to disintegrate as it loses elements of structure, communication and accomplishment.
Project management implementation efforts sometimes set their sights too high by trying to address everything in an organization at one time. This approach has never succeeded. Successful efforts focus on achieving well-defined goals and then standardizing performance around those achievements. New goals are introduced, and the process repeats. If the individuals implementing a project management culture begin to build empires, they usually lose sight of their original focus on project management and, ultimately, fail because their enterprise becomes too large. Successful project management implementation efforts are intelligently contained.
Culture Must Be Economically Viable. A successful culture cannot bankrupt its society or its citizenry. As a culture grows and develops, it must ensure that it can be afforded by and contributes value to its constituents. In many cases, goals in one area are achieved at the expense of others; if competing needs are not reconciled, the culture begins to disintegrate. Many cultures based on military strength have fallen apart as the cost of maintaining a military infrastructure grew too high.
To be viable, project management must add value to the bottom line of any enterprise. The effort to manage projects must return at least as much to the organization as it costs. Project management can yield a return many times the investment required. However, if a project management culture becomes disproportionately sized for its organizational needs, it may in fact end up costing money. To avoid this situation, proponents of project management culture must regularly evaluate and revalidate their efforts.
Successful Cultures Permeate Their Societies. Cultures that are established upon an elitist premise typically fail, frequently through sudden revolutions. In successful cultures, every citizen knows his or her role in the culture and understands the behaviors attendant upon that role. More important, citizens feel a sense of identity with their society and invest both materially and intangibly in their culture. This sense of identity, either individual or collective, is often manifest as nationalism or patriotism; successful cultures are visibly patriotic, as exemplified by Roman culture, the British empire, and the United States.
For a project management culture to flourish, it must be embraced and supported by the majority of an organization's population. Project management is not solely the province of titled project managers. An organization with a culture of project management runs its business from a project perspective. In that context, all executives, line managers, and employees have varying responsibilities for project management. They must actively carry out those roles for the organization's project management culture to thrive.
THE SECRETS TO our future success often lie in our past. We can learn from other cultures as we try to establish a culture of project management in our organizations. If we apply the lessons we have learned, we can save time, avoid failure, and consciously structure our efforts for success and endurance.
Nicholas Schacht, PMP, has spent the last seven years assisting major global corporations in developing their project management cultures. He is currently responsible for strategic initiatives at the Educational Services Institute..
PM Network • September 1997