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Employing a culture of change in project management

Karen Williams
August 10, 2011

You can’t change people; people must want to change themselves. An exploration of how workplace culture affects projects and changes in an organisation.

Culture is all pervasive and all-powerful. It defines our society and can drive social change. Organisational culture is no different. The attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values of those working within an organisation can and do have a tangible effect on change initiatives, particularly major changes such as mergers and acquisitions, and the implementation of the change process. Culture, and its adaptability, will determine whether an organisation achieves its long-term aspirations, or fails.

Without question, organisational culture is complex. Its complexity is heightened by the challenge that it is largely immeasurable. Culture, by its very nature, works with intangibles. It’s all about the attitudes, customs and behaviours that are characteristic of an organisation.

Most organisational change managers have encountered the full gamut of organisational cultures, from the robust, strong and healthy, to those requiring serious resuscitation. Typically these weaker cultures may be fractured, dysfunctional or downright toxic. The vast majority of organisations operate somewhere in between these extremes. Different cultures require different approaches to implementing change. Therefore, before devising the change strategy it is essential that the ‘condition’ of the culture is determined.

Business-owned, business-led change

Robust organisational cultures anticipate and thrive on change to satisfy the desire of doing business better. These organisations possess a state of readiness, which allows change to be embraced. Healthy, strong organisational cultures tend to subscribe to a ‘business-owned, business-led’ approach to anticipated change.

A ‘business-owned, business-led’ approach means the people within the organisation take ownership of their key business deliverables and lead on business improvements as part of their accountability.

An organisation made up of likeminded ‘business-owned, business-led’ people becomes a cohesive and proactive cluster, making positive impacts and change on the organisation. They usually have a strong commitment to the impacts and prosperity of the organisation’s people, processes and systems and take ownership of the business-led change. Such organisations have identified influential change leaders and responsive staff who can align the impending change with organisational improvement—they can see the benefit of the change so they are willing to support it.

Conversely, unhealthy organisational cultures already struggling with cohesive and meaningful business practice require stringent protocols and procedures to drive the change. The ‘business-owned, business-led’ implementation style is incredibly difficult for this type of organisation to grasp. Often, an external and temporary team is engaged to assist these organisations achieve new outcomes. This can be problematic as employees may wary of external consultants. Partnering an internal change champion, such as a long-standing employee who is well respected and knows the organisation with the external body may help.

Expecting a group to simply accept and embrace change is unrealistic, and if they believe a system, process or project won’t work they will ensure it doesn’t. Empower staff to take ownership of change components or a project by making them feel included, that their input is valued and encourage them to care about the impacts and prosperity of the organisations people, processes and systems.

Communication is critical: bring in all levels at the earliest opportunity and gain their feedback. During the tentative stages of implementation, encourage all parties to discuss effectiveness and outcomes. When dealing with systems and processes, efficient testing and training will provide employees the ability and confidence to use the new system and eliminate any glitches and the opportunity for staff to criticise change. Acknowledging and celebrating quick wins can help foster ‘feel good’ outlooks to change.

Working with temporary teams

When you have temporary teams made up of two or more organisations working on a finite project, culture remains key. The bringing together of temporary teams to undertake work on a finite project can be problematic if not handled properly, even in the healthiest of organisational cultures.

Projects are driven by an organisation’s strategic direction. They differ from operational activities, in that they have a lifespan: a beginning, middle, and end. External consultants or contractors manage many projects. Generally, full-time staff are engaged in the capacity of ‘subject matter expert’. They may be fully dedicated to project activities or engaged on an as-required basis.

Karen Williams
Karen Williams is the principal of Message Stix, specialists in change management and providers of communication solutions.
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