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Dealing with cultural challenges in change management

Lynda Bourne
July 24, 2012

The purpose of undertaking a business change activity is to have the new processes used so as to create value. Value can be measured in many different ways—improved quality or safety, reduced effort or errors, increased profits or achieving regulatory compliance—the measure is not important, what matters is the business change is intended to create value.

Value is only realised, however, if the new process or artefact is actually used to achieve the intended improvements. A typical example is a project to introduce new ‘best practices’ based on the Project Management Institute’s Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (PMI OPM3) framework, with the intention of improving project outcomes.

Developing the practices tuned to the needs of the organisation is only half the battle. Have you ever wondered why these ‘best practices’ planned and delivered by well-designed projects are so hard to get implemented and accepted by the rest of the people working in the organisation? The answer is the power of entrenched culture, which can be loosely defined as ‘the way we do business here’ and incorporates attitudes, expectations and the way both internal and external relationships work.

Challenging the status quo

When considering a change initiative, it is important to remember the people in the organisation work there because they can operate in the culture as it currently is, that senior managers have been successful within the existing culture and that, collectively, the managers and staff embody the culture. Even where a smart organisation has aligned the proposed change project with a sensible/necessary strategic intent, and then properly leads and resources the change effort, failure is likely if the power of culture is ignored.

The key reason is the introduction of any new ‘best practice’ will inevitably change the status quo and change the relative power balances within the organisation. A couple of examples:

1. The organisation decides to introduce an effective scheduling system supported through a PMO.

The people involved in doing the schedule gain power, they develop the schedule and report progress against the plan. The rest of the project teams lose power, they need to conform to the plan, losing the flexibility to do what they feel like on a day-to-day basis and failures to achieve the schedule are highlighted to management much sooner than if the schedule was not being used.

What’s good for the organisation as a whole is not necessarily going to be seen as good by the individuals affected by the improvement.

2. The organisation decides to introduce a portfolio management process to select the best projects to undertake to achieve its strategy, within its capacity to properly support the work.

This is a great strategic initiative that maximises the value to the organisation but will mean rejecting more than 60% of the potential projects it could do if it had unlimited resources.

This means 60% of the pet projects supported by various members of the executive will be canned, which means these people will lose power and status firstly to the team making the portfolio decisions and secondly to the executives whose projects were selected.

Another group disadvantaged by the selection process (or more accurately the rejections) are the teams who develop the idea and build the business case for the non-selected projects.

In both cases what’s good for the organisation is potentially bad for a large group of individuals who are currently happy and effectively working within the current culture and structures of the business: if they weren’t happy they would not be there!

Meeting the challenge of entrenched culture requires effective leadership. The change leaders have to create a space within the existing culture for the change initiative to move into and fill. This space is created by crafting a general acceptance within the culture that the current status quo is not working well for the majority and some sacrifice of existing power and comfort is generally warranted for the good of each individual as well as the organisation.

This can be achieved in a number of ways:

  1. By identifying a ‘clear and present danger’ that is threatening the group and the organisation as a whole,  the need to change to survive;
  2. Alternatively issuing a competitive challenge to beat an opposing organisation; or
  3. Engendering a general striving for excellence, simply to be part of something great (best but most difficult).

Engendering the move towards accepting or desiring the change requires powerful leadership embodying credibility and a clear message that identifies the reason for the change and generates buy-in to the concept of changing and improving before the specifics are even discussed. The more established the culture, the harder creating the desire for change becomes.

Once the space has been created and the desire to improve is generally present, a careful dialogue is needed to define the best options for change and build engagement, to recognise those who will inevitably lose power or be inconvenienced by the change and to help these ‘losers’ regain their losses or perceive a better future despite the losses. Altruism is wonderful but it is unwise to rely on it as the primary mechanism for change.

Even after all of this effort, there will always be some resisters to change. The challenge is to shift the majority to a point where they want the improvements or at least recognise that the changes are essential. Once this shift is achieved, traditional change management processes cut in to deal with the implementation of the change, supported by project management processes to create the necessary deliverables to implement the change.

Organisational change management is a team effort; the initiative has to be led by the executive, executed by the project and program management teams, the results used by the organisation and outcomes appreciated by the stakeholder community at large to fully realise the benefits and create the maximum value.

Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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