Project Management

Organizational culture and structure influence project management more than you realize

Even with sound project teams and plans in place, your organization's project success rate may not be as high as it could be. Examine these big-picture factors to see if your organization's culture or structure is interfering.

The differences in project management success rates may be a result of the fact that some organizations do a better job of training their project managers. So they may be more skilled and knowledgeable in the project management discipline. But the way your organization deals with training is just one aspect of your overall organizational culture. A number of big-picture factors influence your ability to deliver projects successfully. Let's look at two of them: culture and structure.

Culture has a huge effect on your success rate
Your organization's culture has a lot to do with the success rate of your projects. Keep in mind that I'm talking about projects all throughout your organization, not just about one particular project. The term culture generally means “how we do things around here.” Imagine that someone asks you how successfully your organization delivers projects. If you say, “We’re pretty poor at delivering projects,” you’re voicing a perception of one aspect of your culture. Culture comes into play on projects in a number of areas.

Process orientation
Many organizations have good processes in place and people generally follow them. This is perhaps the biggest single factor in overall project success. If your organization follows a good, scalable project management process, you’re more likely to be consistently successful on your projects. The entire project team generally knows how to create and follow a work plan, and can use standard processes to effectively handle risk, scope change, and issues.

Governance
Many organizations have processes in place, but no one follows them. This highlights a problem with management governance. In simplistic terms, governance is the management function that has to do with making sure people do what they’re supposed to do. Typically, if your management structure is engaged and interested in projects, and if managers make sure that your project management process is followed, you’ll be more successful. If every project manager is on his or her own and management support is haphazard, however, you’ll tend to fail.

Training
Some organizations do a poor job of training project managers. Typically, these organizations do a poor job of training in general. If project managers generally don’t have the right skills (other than from the school of hard knocks), you won’t be successful.

Roles and responsibilities
In successful organizations, people typically know the role they play on projects and what is expected of them. This includes active sponsors, interested clients, and engaged management stakeholders. The sponsor, for instance, needs to perform a quality assurance role and be the project champion in his or her organization. If your organization starts projects and leaves the project manager in a leadership vacuum, you’re not going to be consistently successful.

Culture plays perhaps the biggest role in whether your organization is successful in executing projects. If your organization has difficulty completing projects successfully, you can’t blame the project managers. They’re only toiling within a culture that’s not supportive of their efforts. Managers, including the head of the organization, need to step up and evaluate the project culture. Until the culture changes, project managers will consistently struggle to be successful.

Your organizational structure can help or hurt project success
To a lesser degree, your organizational structure can get in the way of, or help support, the overall success of your projects. I say that this is a lesser problem because, to a certain extent, you can change your organizational structure. In fact, you can change the organization chart frequently, and some companies do just that. Culture, on the other hand, is not easily changed. It can take years for a large organization to develop a culture of excellence (although it doesn't take nearly as long to fall back into mediocrity).

Some organizational structures can definitely impair your ability to deliver projects. First are those organizations whose project teams are doing support work. If your project organization does support as well, it usually means that support issues will pop up and take the focus away from the project. A lot of multitasking and thrashing takes place as you move from support work to project work to support work. It’s usually very difficult to prepare good estimates and meet your scheduling commitments. You may be forced into this structure if your staff is small. In the last company I worked at, for instance, we had 15 people who worked on support, projects, and enhancements. However, we didn’t have enough people to specialize in either support or project work. This made it difficult to meet all of our project commitments. Instead, we had to do a good job of managing expectations.

Your organizational structure may also impede the ability to share resources. For instance, if your project team needs a resource with a specific expertise, you may not be able to easily share that person with another functional area. Some of this is also related to your culture. Ask yourself whether a different organizational structure would help. If it would, you may have an organization problem. If it wouldn't help, your culture is probably not supportive of resource sharing. When I worked for a beverage company, for instance, we went through a period of two years when the management team developed a strong culture of resource sharing between projects. However, with the arrival of a new CIO and new director, resource sharing was discouraged (and punished). So, the culture quickly reverted to resource hoarding.

Step back and see the big picture
A number of organizational factors support or inhibit the ability of your project managers to be successful. Granted, culture is a broad term, but your organizational culture plays the biggest role in whether you’re able to deliver projects successfully. You can’t attack a culture of mediocrity (or a culture of failure) one project at a time. You need to address it in a broad and multifaceted way.

Your organizational structure can also help or hinder your success rate. The structure can determine how well you focus on projects and how easy it is to share resources between organizations. If you attack the broader cultural problems, you'll have a positive effect on many of the organizational barriers to success as well.
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