Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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Successful project planning starts with culture

While running a two-day culture building session for a large program recently, one of the attendees remarked 'I had no idea working on projects could be this fun!'. The funny thing was, the project hadn't started yet. This is the benefit of investing in creating a project culture before you start a project; people want to be involved and to make it successful without fully understanding the details.

Too many project managers still don't do this. They don't take the time, effort and money to create a brand, a purpose and a sub-culture for their project. They still think that writing a schedule at their desk is all that's required to create a 'plan'. They're wrong.

On the other hand, you have senior managers who don't see the point in investing time and money in planning and just want project managers 'to get on and do it.' Hands up if you've seen that? Keep those hands up if you're not surprised when that project turns to custard? Dr. Jason Fox, the author of The Game Changer, said that 'planning gets in the way of doing, but only when done badly.'

When projects don't take the time to build a culture at the planning stage, stakeholder engagement is low, and the opportunity to create a guiding coalition to implement the changes required (as recommended by the great John Kotter) is lost. A project will forever look like this even if it has the detail required to make it a success:

In a recent survey conducted by Google on 'Working Together Better' they asked survey respondents ‘Which processes would derive the greatest benefit from increased collaboration?’. The number one at 20% was planning. In a survey conducted by Salesforce asking whether 'Poor Collaboration is Killing Your Company', 97% of respondents believe that a lack of team alignment directly impacts the outcome of a task or project. So, almost everyone then.

Neither of these statistics will be surprising, nor will be the fact that project (and program) managers continually overlook them and the activity required to create a culture to mitigate both of these risks.

If we're to change the grim statistics around project failure and the stress that these projects cause, then the planning process has to start in the right way. The right way is to focus not on the detail but on the people who are going to be involved. When I was a project manager, I wasn't the most technically gifted (a non-IT person working in IT), but I knew that if I created a high performing, fun team that others wanted to join then we would succeed.

Program and project managers need to take time out to discuss and agree on the following as a minimum:

  • The project vision
  • The behaviours they'll exhibit towards each other
  • How they'll collaborate and which tools you'll use
  • How they'll run your meetings
  • How they'll use humour
  • How they'll keep the stakeholders happy
  • How they'll celebrate success
  • How they'll ensure that you stay healthy during the project

By doing this before the actual process of planning starts, projects get the dual benefit of getting the information needed to make the project successful and creating a culture that others will want to join. Rather than tailing off in the diagram above, project planning now looks like this:

In his book The Project 50, Tom Peters called these kinds of projects 'Wow' projects and said that 'A Wow project is dynamic, stimulating, a major bond builder with co-workers, a source of buzz among end-users and's where everyone else wants to be.' Which project manager doesn't want to create that?

What are you doing to build a culture at the planning stage of your project or program?

How are you engaging your stakeholders so they can input into the planning effort?

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