An awful lot has been written (with “awful” being the operant word here) about the PM’s role in “changing culture,” usually of the organization that the Project Team belongs to, in such a way as to expedite the use of PM tools and techniques within said organization, leading to an increase in the frequency with which projects are brought in on-time, on-budget. What seriously irks me about such assertions lies with the fact that the word “culture” is usually so poorly defined within these arguments that their assertions can basically be boiled down to “the members of the Project Team didn’t do as I said, or found some way to disappoint me, leading to the failure to …” install a Project Management Office, or advance PM capabilities within the organization, or bring the project in on-time, or any other disaster that happens to unfold. So, let’s turn to Dictionary.com for a usable definition of the term “culture.” Although several of the definitions (3 through 6) offered could apply, I’m thinking #7 is closest to fulfilling our purposes:
- the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.
- that which is excellent in the arts, manners, etc.
- a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.
- development or improvement of the mind by education or training.
- the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular group of people, as a social, ethnic, professional, or age group (usually used in combination): the youth culture; the drug culture.
- the shared beliefs, behaviors, or social environment connected with a particular aspect of society: the rape culture on campus; the culture of poverty; a culture of celebrity worship.
- the values, typical practices, and goals of a business or other organization, especially a large corporation: Their corporate culture frowns on avoiding risk.[i]
Now let’s zoom in on the three subject nouns in number 7:
- “the values…” Does the organization value (a) “maximizing shareholder wealth” (the Asset Managers’ goal) over (b) meeting or exceeding customer expectations with regard to completing projects on-time, on budget, with all aspects of the negotiated scope well-fulfilled?
- “…typical practices,” When the organization seeks to generate information on cost or schedule performance, does it (a) employ actual cost monthly burn rates derived from the general ledger, and milestone lists, or does it use (b) Earned Value and Critical Path Methodologies?
- “…and goals of a business” Sort of a rehash of the first bullet. Does the organization seek to (a) make money directly, or (b) earn a profit indirectly by building up and maintaining a solid customer base?
If your eval of the bulleted questions returned even one (a) answer, you are most probably in the same confounded conundrum that has beset the vast majority of PMs since the start of Project Management as a distinct discipline. For virtually every business in its growth or maintenance of market share phase, (b) is clearly the best answer. One would not know this from the curriculum of almost every business college in the world, though. They have been dominated by the Asset Managers’ view of corporate commerce techniques since the time of Machiavelli (a coincidence?), and show few signs of losing their epistemological grip on academia, if not the industrialized world.
All of which brings us back to the notion of culture change. In those organizations lucky enough to have a strong PM culture, I’d be willing to bet that it did not come about because the execs in the Finance and Accounting Department had a sudden epiphany, and gladly handed the technical agenda for producing project-related management information streams over to the PMI®-types. Nor am I inclined to believe that it came about due to an infiltration of PMs re-writing a bunch of procedures, and getting some executive to sign off on them. No, my money is on a handful of courageous and insightful PMs actually (if not surreptitiously) embracing PM culture, and using its manifestations to bring in projects on-time, on-budget, including functional EVM and CPM systems, leading to the establishment of a solid customer base.
Unfortunately, this last approach also happens to be the longest. So, yeah, the PMO can “change culture,” just not directly. The kind of change that challenges and eventually overcomes literal centuries of Asset Management rules and techniques probably never comes about from a frontal assault-style approach. It has to be done one project at a time, then one program at a time, before it can move on to portfolios, organizations, and entire industries.
And that’s how PMs’ actions can lead to culture change.