Colin D Ellis
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Five warning signs that you have a broken project culture

Quick disclaimer...I normally like all my posts to be positive. I like to see and accentuate the good in everything so that you can see only opportunity and possibility and shoot for that.

It makes me feel good writing it and hopefully it makes you feel good when you read it. Our world is full of negativity, so it's nice to read something that focuses the mind, rather than deflates the spirit. However, one of my clients suggested that I write a post that highlighted some of the things that indicate that something's not right, in order to raise awareness, so that they can do something about it. So here we are, with the 5 warnings.

In reality there are many more than 5 (so feel free to add yours in the comment section below), however in the work that I do with organisations to help them establish a culture that delivers at the start of their projects, these are the most prevalent. To be honest, if you see just one of these you're already in trouble; if you see all 5 then it's time to fix them immediately or run for the hills, possibly disguised!

Here's the good news - you knew there'd be some - they're all fixable! All of them, without exception. You just have to want to fix them and accept that the answers are not in that project management textbook that sits on your desk. Instead, the solutions lie in the determination and commitment you have to be different and to focus on what's really important in projects - the people and the way you work. This is the work that I do and I love doing it, because you get immediate engagement, focus, buy-in and results.

Right, let's get on with the blog.

Warning 1: No one understands why you're doing the project

For the project to really matter and for the people who are working on it to really care, it's got to line up with those things that your company said they would address at the start of the year. In other words, your strategy. The second that you deviate from that, you lose people and the kitchen conversations start: 'I have no idea why we are doing this?', 'this doesn't line up with what we said we'd do', 'we're only doing this because the HR Manager went to [insert name of competitor] and saw what they had' and so on. The project has to fit your strategy, not the other way around. Only then will people get it and buy into it. Obviously, you have to have a strategy to begin with, but that's a whole other blog.

Warning 2: The Project Manager isn't approachable

At the start of a recent assignment I arranged a meeting with the project manager to talk about how we were going to plan in the sessions around developing the culture. Prior to the meeting, I was warned by their boss that they'd be really helpful providing I caught them on the right day. If I didn't I may have to start again the following day. At which point red flashing lights and klaxons started going off in my head (and that's hard stuff to internalise, let me tell you).

Project management is a leadership and communications business, always has been, always will be, so if you're not able to approach the project manager at any time of the day and get a positive interaction, then you have a problem. A big one.

Warning 3: There's no time for actual work

I love meetings, I really do. Providing they have a purpose, involve the right people (note: not 'everyone'), are focused on actions and start and finish on time. Chocolate biscuits also help. However, when you have meeting after meeting after meeting and there's no time to do anything that actually moves the project forward, then expect your project to fail. Spectacularly. Amongst the phrases to set the alarm bells ringing are such gems as 'I have back-to-backs all day', 'I need to block out [insert day] to get things done', '7.30am is the only time I can find across the next two weeks when everyone is free'. In order to deliver projects and find time to do incredible stuff, you need time. As much of it as you can get.

Warning 4: It takes weeks to make a decision

When I work 'one on one' with project managers I tell them that when faced with a decision, they need to make it quickly. Not hastily or without context, but quickly. Nothing says 'this project is doomed' more than an important issue that has remained unresolved for weeks. Unfortunately, we have got ourselves into the position where we're afraid to make a decision because of the potential consequences. It has nothing to do with risk aversion and has everything to do with fear. The way to deal to fear is to feel it, acknowledge it and then face it head on and make the bloody decision. If it turns out to be the wrong one, show some humility, come up with some options to fix it, then make another decision.

Warning 5: You're not working on anything in the plan

I'm making a huge assumption that you have a plan, if not, then consider that Warning Sign Zero and stop immediately. Do not pass go or collect your project budget. Get the plan right and then start, not before. Once you have a plan it's important to stick to it. As soon as you veer away from it without good (project) reasoning for doing so then it's almost certain that what will be built won't meet the customer's needs. Worse still is when you don't even reference the plan and choose instead to 'go with the flow'. That approach is fine if you really don't care about the needs of the customer but I'm guessing that you do, so stick to the plan. Oh and even agile projects need plans so that's not a valid excuse either.

Hopefully after reading this you can look at your projects and say 'well that was interesting, but it's not relevant to our projects' and get on with the business of delivering. If however you recognise any of these as being true for your projects then you need to adopt a different approach.

What are you going to do to address these project culture issues? How do you intend to make the development of your project culture a priority at the planning stage?

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