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Recognizing and Adapting to the Culture of Your Project Team

written by: Michele McDonough • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 8/30/2011

How many projects are stalled due to clashing cultures and ideas? Even if one way of doing things sounds better in theory, battling the existing culture to try and force the change may not be the best idea. Instead, you may just have a little adapting to do.

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    Culture Matters

    Phone I recently read a fabulous post by Dale Richards that led me to start thinking about a lot of other issues in project management – communication plans, in particular. Richards makes the point that every organization – and even an individual department within a single organization – has its own culture, and sometimes that culture just doesn’t jive with the way we’re used to doing things. Instead of trying to fight the tide, we really just need to recognize the differences in each of these cultures and adapt our strategies accordingly.

    This reminded me of a particular situation during a past project, when the organization’s way of doing things clashed with the project manager’s idea of how communication should be handled. To be perfectly fair, I do want to stress up front that the company recognized that the PM’s way of handling communication probably was the better way. So, this wasn’t even a case of colliding egos, but more of a… Well, before I get ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning.

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    Yeah, Let's Try That!

    Teamwork Several years ago, I was a co-sponsor on a major IT project for which the project manager (who was brand new to the organization) had developed a highly detailed communication plan. That plan was a work of art and everyone was quite impressed with the whole thing. All key stakeholders signed off on the plan right away – it just looked so efficient and organized – even though it was quite different from the way we had handled communication on past projects.

    As one important element of the plan, the project manager planned to hold a weekly conference call with 10 key stakeholders, scheduled for an hour-long period every Tuesday afternoon. The idea was that the PM could start off the call with a quick status report, and then each stakeholder would have the chance to voice any issues or concerns.

    Since these stakeholders were spread out across the country, and weekly face-to-face meetings would not even be remotely feasible, everyone loved this idea at first. In the past, we had always relied on weekly written reports for projects like this, but the thought of having an actual weekly discussion instead seemed like it would bypass a lot of hurdles. That is, if someone had a question, they could voice it and get an immediate response instead of playing that time-honored game of phone tag.

    For the first two weeks, everything went off without a hitch. All required attendees dialed into the conference, a productive discussion took place and everyone left the call with that great “I feel totally informed” feeling.

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    Getting Pulled Back Into Orbit

    Earth on Fire In week three, things started to break down. A couple of stakeholders missed the weekly call, but it didn’t seem that big a deal at the time. After all, we figured that some people would have to miss calls now and then for various reasons. Plus, the project manager was sending out a copy of the meeting minutes after every call, so the absent parties would still know what was covered. If they had any questions, they could just give the PM a quick call.

    Over the next few weeks, the teleconferences became smaller and smaller – to the point that we were lucky to get three stakeholders on the same call. By that time, most of the stakeholders had begun to see the weekly calls as more of a burden than an improvement over the old way of doing things. We were still getting our weekly status reports in the form of meeting minutes, and the project manager was only a phone call away if any issues needed to be explained further. By comparison, setting aside a pre-specified block of time to discuss the project felt too constrictive.

    Basically, we had all gravitated back to the way we were used to doing things in the past without even realizing it.

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    So, What Happened Next?

    Instead of adjusting to this, the project manager continued to hold the weekly project status calls for the entire length of the project – even if only one person took the time to dial in – because that was the plan. Even though it had become obvious that everyone was really much happier doing things the old, established way, the PM wouldn’t give up because he thought this new way was better.

    And, you know what? No one was arguing that his way wasn’t the best way. In fact, most agreed that the whole weekly teleconference idea was great, and it was a more productive use of time. None of that actually mattered, though. It really just boiled down to the fact that we were used to doing things a different way – a way that had always worked for us in the past, whether it was the most productive way or not.

    Now, some might argue that we stakeholders should have tried harder to embrace the new communication strategy. The project manager sure did, but he was really the only one who was adversely affected. Instead of spending a single hour a week talking to all key stakeholders at once, he had to start fielding odd calls throughout the week, often explaining the same thing to different parties on different calls. I've been in that role, too, so I know how frustrating that can be.

    But even though the project manager disliked the old way of doing things (and had very valid reasons for that dislike), others in the organization were more comfortable with that method – it was a part of our culture. Sometimes, you do have to adapt to that culture, even if you do think it's "bad." What are your thoughts?

References