Can your project survive your culture?

Published on the 31/05/2016 | Written by Gary Nelson

Not every project is lucky enough to start on fertile ground, as project management expert Gary Nelson explains…

Every project starts out as a ‘great idea’ that is sure to make things better, meet a need, launch a new product, maybe even ‘save the world’ – as long as you deliver it on time, within scope and to budget, right? Not all projects survive, of course, and one might blame exceeded budgets, schedule delays or not delivering to the defined scope. But what if the problem with many ‘failed’ projects was something else entirely? What if your organisational culture was to blame?

Understanding the foundation
What is this thing we call ‘culture’, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines it as:

(noun) “A way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or organisation (such as a business).”

In practical terms, people say “that’s just the way things are done around here”. That can be a problem if it means “go away, things are fine just the way they are”.

Your culture may be open and accepting to change and new ideas, like freshly turned earth accepting new seed, or hard and unyielding like sunbaked clay, resistant to any new and different ideas taking root.

The culture of your organisation has a significant impact on every project you attempt to deliver. It provides the foundation for what types of projects will be viewed as acceptable in your environment, given the risk tolerance level of your organisation, attitude towards change and other factors. It also affects the developmental stages of your project, as you work with some stakeholders who are supportive, and others who feel threatened and will throw up continual obstacles in your way – or try to stop your project entirely. Even if you manage to finish your project, you can still face failure if the organisation refuses to adopt and use the fruits of your labour.

So how can projects not only survive, but grow and even thrive if the cultural environment is less than ideal?

Wisdom from an ancient profession provides an approach that can help your projects succeed. In order to survive the culture, you need to cultivate your projects. But what does it mean to cultivate something?

Merriam-Webster defines cultivate as:

(verb) “To foster growth; To grow or raise (something) under conditions that you can control; Culture”

We all try to control our projects within defined boundaries and objectives, but the conditions – the environment and the culture – can ultimately decide if we are successful or not. However, you can’t simply ignore the culture and hope for the best; you need to help prepare the culture for change. You need to till the soil.

Breaking ground
Every farmer knows that very few seeds cast on hard, dry ground will take root – most will be blown away or eaten by birds. A farmer must first loosen up the soil so the seeds have somewhere to start growing in safety.

If the culture of your organisation is hard, unyielding and unprepared for change, your project is unlikely to get the support it needs to get started. You need a project sponsor who is engaged, supports the project manager and is willing to help open doors, break through the soil and plough the first furrow – all so you can plant that first seed.

Taking root
Dry ground, no matter how soft, won’t germinate the seed. The farmer knows that additional resources are required, moisture and warmth from sunlight, in order for the seed to take root and start to grow.

In project terms, you won’t get very far without a vision, goals, a spark of imagination, staff, budget and a plan, many of which should be enabled by the project sponsor. Without the resources and support you need to begin growing your project, it is unlikely the project will ever see daylight.

Grow, baby, grow!
Once the first shoots reach daylight, growth can be quite rapid as they absorb sunlight.

These can be heady, exciting times on your project, as many things start happening at once and the future looks bright. When everything is going well, it can be all too easy to forget your dependence on the underlying culture – but you do so at your own peril.

Digging deeper
Growth is good, but in order to sustain it the roots need to expand and dig deeper into the soil for strength and water. If the soil is just a shallow layer above hardpan or bedrock, the roots will be unable to support the growth above ground for long.

While you project reaches to the sky, you can’t afford to neglect the foundations. You need the continued support of the sponsor, and a growing list of advocates to help support the project and strengthen its foundations, working within the culture as you prepare to weather the tougher times ahead.

Too dry, too wet, too soon, too late
Farming is far from a placid, pastoral occupation; it is fraught with risk, subject to environmental extremes and final delivery is dependent on optimal conditions and timing, many aspects of which are beyond the farmer’s control. Floods, scorching droughts, crops flattened by hail or heavy rains before they can bring in the harvest – it’s a wonder they keep at it, year after year.

Sound familiar? Perhaps farmers were the original project managers after all.

A shovel, seed, water, dirt and sunlight by themselves won’t produce the best crops. You need well-conditioned soil, a timely spot of fertiliser and a diligent farmer keeping an eye on everything, pulling out weeds from time to time.

Projects are hard work, but with good foundations, support from a strong project sponsor, a host of advocates embedded in the business culture and a practical change management plan, your project can indeed survive your culture and even thrive – all while avoiding being mistaken for a weed.

And who knows? Overalls and gumboots might even look good with a tie…


Gary Nelson is a Project Manager, father of three boys and author of five project management books. He has worked on numerous projects in the private and public sectors over the past 27 years. His international experience includes projects in New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US and Canada. His blog, Gazza’s Corner, features a range of project management articles.

Post a comment or question...

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Other Articles by Gary Nelson

risk management

Are we over-doing Risk Management?

opinion-article |January 20, 2016 | Gary Nelson

For many years, New Zealand seemed oblivious to risk, notes Gary Nelson. “She’ll be right” chorused around the country as projects began, and usually succeeded…

If most projects fail, why bother doing them at all?

opinion-article |August 18, 2015 | Gary Nelson

There is still hope, explains international project management expert Gary Nelson…

The case for honest estimates

opinion-article |June 16, 2015 | Gary Nelson

Setting out on any project requires getting some idea of the costs and timelines involved – but project management expert Gary Nelson points out that there can be problems with estimates which can scupper projects before they even start…[View as PDF]

How much methodology is needed for a successful project?

opinion-article |March 25, 2015 | Gary Nelson

These days it seems like you can’t swing a cat without bumping into two or three technology projects, but not all of them will be successful. Project management methodologies are one way to improve success rates…

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Follow iStart to keep up to date with the latest news and views...