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How does culture affect project success?

16 Jul 2018

How does culture affect project success?

Culture is like the air people breathe at work. It informs the way the organisation behaves towards its employees and the way they behave towards each other. It sets the tone for the organisation’s interactions with the public, and with its competitors. It can make a company an almost unstoppable force, or put it in the relegation zone of businesses that failed to adapt to changing times. But can culture affect the success rate of projects? 

Organisations have trouble with projects

Projects are notoriously difficult for organisations. Their temporary nature, mixed personnel (employees, contractors, suppliers, users) and limited timespan can all present a challenge to a business. 

However, project managers are in a privileged position in terms of a company’s culture. They have an opportunity to take an agile approach. A clever manager can exploit those parts of the culture that drive successful delivery, while skimming lightly over those parts that hold it back. But the very fact that they know which parts these are is actually useful knowledge about the culture and the organisation could benefit from it. 

While projects need to be involved in changes to the culture, they also have valuable inputs to that culture. In multinational companies, project people often work on projects that cross national boundaries and are used to working in teams of people with diverse religions, beliefs, and cultural norms. Not only does this diversity tend to improve project outcomes, it means that project teams can teach the home organisation a lot about diversity and productive working relationships with people who are different. Project managers often have a knowledge of different cultures but tend not to shout about it. So this should be celebrated by the organisation. 

Projects have trouble with gender diversity

Where projects can fall down in diversity, is in gender representation. This used to be because the project delivery disciplines, such as engineering, were male-dominated. This is not so much the case today and yet project teams are often disproportionately male. This has to do with the fact that many people settle down and have children in their late twenties and thirties. Women still tend to be the primary caregivers for young children and they don’t have the mobility that is often required to work on projects. 

In fact, an oil industry executive was heard complaining that while younger employees were keen to travel and work on international projects, they didn’t know anything. Once they had gained valuable knowledge and could contribute usefully, many of them had settled down, had young families and didn’t want to travel. 

A culture that embraces technology helps projects deliver

So there are real practical problems in project culture and these appear at first sight, to militate against diversity. However, modern technology can overcome many of these stumbling blocks and allow young parents, disabled people and those who are not mobile, to keep up their careers as project professionals. Videoconferencing, remote working and virtual teams mean that people don’t need to spend weeks or months in a hotel in another country in order to contribute to a project. 

What’s more, project people don’t have a big leap to make when it comes to changing work structures that may mean work roles being constantly redefined, training going out of date and skills needing to be upgraded. They’re used to all of that. Certainly, there are a few dinosaurs who took a Prince course ten years ago and still cling to its tenets but even they are feeling the winds of change. 

So a pragmatic, diverse and technology-enabled culture will not only help projects deliver - it will also help the organisation implement a more diverse and representative culture.










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