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The culture of delivery

As project managers we do not deliver on our own. We deliver as part of a larger organisation.  Typically, only a small part of the organisation is involved in the project we are running.

What the organisation does share is a culture – or at least a series of broadly consistent behaviours and beliefs. Our ability to delivery successfully is impacted significantly by the culture of the organisation. 

We will have all experienced the fact that it is easier to deliver in some organisations than others. Some organisations have cultures which seem to facilitate or encourage delivery. Unfortunately, other organisations seem to have developed cultures which are almost perfectly evolved to obstruct delivery at every point. 

When anyone wants to discuss a project case study with me, I always try and find out whether the organisation has a culture in which delivery thrives or in which it struggles.

I am very interested in what it is about organisational culture that facilitates or obstructs delivery. I am often involved in helping organisations to try and improve their delivery performance. One of the greatest challenges in doing this is trying to change the underlying culture of the organisation. 

As an individual project manager, typically, there is very little we can do to alter an organisation’s culture. But we should be able to identify those characteristics which help delivery and those which hinder it. At the very least, the cost and time of delivering a project in a helpful organisation will be different from the time and cost of delivery in an obstructing organisation.

In this article I identify a few characteristics which I think help or hinder delivery. I hope these ring a bell for you. I’m most interested to use this article to generate a discussion about the culture of delivery.

1. Ownership and accountability

In the organisational culture which facilitates delivery people take accountability for actions and tasks.

A good way to identify organisations in which this is not true is to sit in a meeting and observe. Are actions raised and do people naturally tend to stand up and take ownership of these actions? If no one steps forward and everyone has to be prodded into taking responsibility, then your task as a project manager is likely to be more difficult.

A more subtle version of this problem is when ownership is allocated, but it is allocated to teams or departments and not individuals.  In the end, it is not teams or departments that deliver work on projects. It is individual people. I am always more comfortable with plans than name people than ones which name organisational units.

What can you do if you find yourself working in an environment in which ownership and accountability are not easily accepted? You need to be very robust in your planning phase in making sure every task has a named owner. Make sure you have plenty of time in the planning phase to do this. Don’t get fobbed off by abstract entities like the names of teams.  

2. Execution of responsibilities

In the organisational culture which facilitates delivery, people, when they have accountability for actions, tend to execute those actions without follow up and reminders. They just get on and do it!

A really irritating problem happens in those organisations in which people appear to accept responsibility to deliver something when they are in meetings, but after the meeting nothing happens. 

Some of the most frustrating businesses I have worked in have this feature. Actions are agreed, often in a meeting with a senior manager present. Everyone smiles and says they accept the actions, but after the meeting nothing happens.

What can you do if you work in this sort of business? The answer is a relentless focus on progress chasing and continuous reminding of delivery accountabilities and timescales. Waiting for the periodic update meetings is not enough. People in these organisations need ongoing chasing.

3. Respecting other’s goals

In the organisational culture which facilitates delivery people respect others’ goals (i.e. my goal does not over ride any responsibility to anyone else’s goals). Of course, no organisation has one set of universal goals, and there are always clashes and conflicts of priorities and objectives. But in effective organisations such clashes are accepted as normal parts of business, which need to be calmly resolved.

Unfortunately, this seems to be rarely the case. The culture of performance management which pervades much of modern business often seems to actively encourage staff to avoid helping anyone who is doing something which does not directly contribute to their own goals. Where conflict arises, battles ensue. Classic things include people playing political games, and sending out angry emails with unnecessarily long lists of CC’d or even BCC’d readers.  This is never productive.

What can you do if you work in this type of culture? Before the project kicks off try and ensure everyone who needs to contribute to the project has aligned, or at least not conflicting, goals.  If you can, get delivery of the project included in the team’s performance objectives. Try to ensure the project has a senior sponsor, who is prepared to intervene regularly.  And, unfortunately, accept that resolving, or working around, political battles takes time!

4. Consistency of objectives

In the organisational culture which facilitate delivery there is a consistency of focus, and not a daily churn of objectives and priorities. Of course, priorities and strategies evolve, and problems arise which need to be immediately fixed, but it is understood that delivery takes time and constant changes of strategic direction are not helpful.

There are many businesses in which this is not true. In some of them changes of focus cannot be avoided. Some businesses work in very dynamic markets and it is essential to respond to market pressures regularly. But this is not the case for most businesses. The reality is that constant alteration of goals and priorities is a usually a result of poor strategic thinking and a lack of foresight.

What can you do if you work in this kind of business? My response is always to try and deliver a project relative to the priority it is given. If an initiative changes priority then in my mind this is a critical change to the conditions in which the project operates – and plans may need to be altered as a response to this. It is not a project manager’s role to deliver in spite of priorities, but to deliver taking account of the priority a project is given.  Sponsors and other stakeholders rarely agree to this – so the response must be that it is their job to keep the project in focus and at a high priority.

I could go on and on extending this list, but these are four of the more common cultural challenges I face on a regular basis. Given the shortage of space in an article like this, my answers are a little simplistic. Each situation is unique, and often requires a unique response, but I hope my answers at least give some indication of what I would consider.

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