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Can Project Managers Cope with Cultural Change?

16 Jul 2018

Can project managers cope with cultural change?

There’s a huge amount of cultural change under way at the moment, in both businesses and the public sector. The verdict is in on the effect of diversity and treating people as individuals - and it shows strong productivity growth in companies that empower individuals, encourage engagement and value differences. These are the comp
anies that are setting the agenda and disrupting the old ways of doing things. So everyone is trying to change the way they run their organisations, well aware that if they don’t, they will not be able to keep up with the competition. 

Everyone that is, apart from the project management world. Do we have a cultural problem here?

Projects - the grit in the cultural change sandwich?

If project management sees any need to change at all, and it often doesn’t, then it tends to see a need to do what it’s doing now, only more efficiently. This approach, of streamlining and speeding up existing processes, is the exact opposite of cultural change programmes which seek radical transformation of what is done and how it’s done. 

Face it, a key project tool remains the Gantt chart, invented in about 1910 by Henry Gantt. Gantt was a more interesting man than his somewhat severe picture indicates, but nonetheless he was a time and motion man, working in engineering over a hundred years ago. Why are project managers still using Gantt charts? Because they are almost impossible for executives to understand, in itself a useful attribute for those project managers who would rather keep information to themselves. Far from embracing a culture of transparency and openness, project managers embrace technical tools that keep users and customers at arm’s length. 

The project board and team - consensus-free zones?

Project structures are also resolutely command and control in their approach to work. There’s no consensus building or engagement here. This is what we’re going to do, now get on with it, is the general approach. 

The widespread use of contractors is another factor here. They’re brought in to do a job, know nothing of the organisation’s culture, and probably care less because they’re moving on as soon as they’re finished. A useful test for an organisation is to measure the diversity of project teams, and compare them to the rest of the organisation. 

Projects - last outpost of resistance to change?

What can happen, especially if you have a Programme Management Office (PMO) with these attitudes, is that projects become an enclave of resistance to cultural change. Pretty soon, employees who are not comfortable with the changes happening in the organisation, start making their way into project work because they know their attitudes won’t be challenged. 

This isn’t a good thing for the organisation. But it doesn’t have to be like this because several aspects of project management can work very well with a more modern working environment, once they’re recognised as helpful. 

Project management could lead change

For example, project managers are not interested in how tasks are accomplished - only that they are done to an acceptable quality and on time. That’s very much in tune with modern working practices. It’s the “business as usual” managers who tend not to know how long a task should take, and who are deeply suspicious of different working styles. This is because they only know whether someone is working if they can see them sitting in the office at a keyboard. 

A project manager is very specific about how long a task should take, monitors output closely and calls people to account if they aren’t productive. This is ideal for an organisation where people want to work more flexibility. 

So don’t write project managers off as dinosaurs yet. They can teach the rest of the organisation some useful skills. These won’t include how to do a Gantt chart, however.

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