You Can’t Implement Process And Get Culture

I’ve written a fair bit now about the need for process to respect culture. Culture has to shape what we define and implement as practices. We can’t let our ideology get in the way of what will actually work in the organization that we find ourselves in.

We often want the converse to also be true. Improving process is about creating change. We want different outcomes, different results, different efficiencies or different ways of coordination and organizing. And sometimes the hope is that what will be different is the culture itself.

Process, though, does not create culture. Process can influence culture. In the best of circumstances, process can nudge culture in a positive and desired direction. In the worst of circumstances, process can completely undermine culture. But process doesn’t create culture. Culture eats process for breakfast.

That’s not to say that organizations don’t try. When change is required, when different behaviours are desired, when there is an attempt to shift how the organization operates and how interactions with the organization are experienced, process is often what is looked to. We improve existing processes. We replace standard operating procedures. We deploy methodologies. But what comes out the end is an altogether similar culture, now possibly bearing the wounds of process change, but largely still recognizable as the organization that we started with.

A couple of examples are probably useful here, to highlight the principles that are at play.

The first is one of the organizations in the Value of PM study. There were many examples to choose from here—the study produced a rich bounty—but those that demonstrate extremes are often incredibly useful in highlighting the principles that emerge more subtly elsewhere.

This particular organization is based in North America, and operates in a highly competitive industry. Part of a telecommunications company, they implement complex technical solutions for clients that usually involves needing to coordinate and gain cooperation from various different business units not normally given to playing nicely together. “Coordination” usually requires some combination of begging, pleading, threatening, bribery, escalation and riding herd on things in order to get something like a coordinated project completed.

Those with project management responsibilities tended to be pretty good at getting things done. Most were long-standing employees of the organization, the majority of whom had come up the ranks. They were respected by the organization, had deep relationships with the business units they collaborated with and brought a “get it done” attitude to the organization. Little of what was done was planned in any real sense, however. Clients got results, certainly, but that wasn’t necessarily a product of any deliberate or proactive planning that a project manager might recognize.

Nonetheless, people responsible for this work bore the title of project manager. And senior management got the bright idea that they should better formalize project management to promote discipline and formality and proactive planning. In fact, they went so far as not only implementing a project management methodology, but getting it certified to the ISO 9001 quality standard.

Now the essential principle of ISO quality certification is really quite simple: say what you do, and do what you say. Have a written procedure, and then follow it rigorously. Adherence is tested by periodic, in-depth audits that are conducted on an annual basis. From the perspective of the executive team, the rationale for pursuing certification was straightforward: it was a way of differentiating the organization from their competitors. It was a signal that “we’ll manage your project that much more effectively, because our process is verified to do just that.”

A claim like that requires some follow-through, of course. And that’s where things started to go off the rails. We conducted our assessment a couple of years after this. On paper, they were a project management organization with a certified process. They had trained, senior project managers. Speaking personally, my expectation was that we were going to see some pretty robust, capable practices that with hope led to some impressively solid project results.

What we saw instead was very different. The interviews we conducted as part of the assessment started positively enough. The executive team gave us all of the time we needed to understand them as an organization, and the rationale and experience in implementing project management. A meeting with a Senior VP was allowed to go an hour over the scheduled time. That didn’t last.

As we started interviewing project managers, though, we experienced a very different reality. Interviews were cancelled at the last minute. Interview candidates didn’t show up. When they did, they would have their cell phones prominently on the table in front of them. Every buzz, beep and boing was responded to. Interviews were interrupted numerous times so that people could respond to emails or take phone calls.

The picture that quickly emerged was one that was completely different than the one that was advertised. For all of the rhetoric around process and structure and certification, this was an organization of firefighters. Project managers operated by the seat of their pants. They delivered by constantly staying on top of their projects, responding to every issue and problem. They were entirely reactive. Moreover, they liked managing that way. There was a very clear level of satisfaction that they were the ones at the centre of the whirlwind, getting things done and managing the chaos. It was their identify, and a particular source of pride.

So what of the ISO 9001 certified process, you might ask? Wasn’t it complied with? And the answer would be: sort of. The project managers recognized the process was there. They understood the requirements. They knew they were being watched and audited. And they complied with the process exactly to the degree that they were measured and assessed. Meaning that for about one month a year, they scrambled like mad to do all the paperwork they should have done if they were managing their projects according to the process in the first place. Even in attempting to demonstrate proactive compliance, they operated in reactive catch-up mode.

While an extreme example, this organization is only one instance of many. But it’s an exceptionally powerful illustration of how organizational and culture change is often attempted. In an effort to respond to a reactive, shoot-from-the-hip management style, senior management tried to force upon the organization a process that would require proactive compliance. And it, too, was responded to reactively. The process didn’t change the culture. The culture simply recognized the presence of the process, and dealt with it to the extent that was required. In doing so, the same values, principles and behaviours were sustained. The culture endured.

This is one of the fundamental reasons that process has to recognize and align with organizational culture. For process to be adopted, the culture has to accept it. Fundamentally, this requires that those in the organization recognize that what is being proposed can make a difference. It needs to respond to real problems, and do so in a way that people can see themselves being more successful than whatever is currently in place today.

That’s not to say that incremental improvements in culture aren’t possible, and that they can’t be supported through the adoption of process. But it also means that nudging the culture is a careful calibration of change that balances what is desired, what can be accepted and what is possible. Changes need to be small and incremental. They need to respond to recognized issues and challenges in the organization. Improvements need to be acknowledged—and not just accepted, but also be seen as acceptable—as reasonable solutions that can work.

This is the largest reason why top-down change rarely works, and frequently fails to have the impact that it should. And yet arguing for top-down reinforcement is one of the most common approaches in managing change. An organization I have been consulting with periodically is a good example of this. They also are going through significant, on-going transformation of a number of their practice areas. They also have a larger than usual number of new hires, as the organization itself has grown in response to increasing demands.

For those brought in to lead some of the key change initiatives, they are stymied and stunned by the organization that they encounter. There is a strong, well-defined and recognized culture. And the culture is actively resisting a lot of the changes being proposed. The proposed response from several of the new staff is relatively simple: just get senior management to tell people that they have to do it. The presumption is that top-down edicts will drive the desired shifts in behaviour, and force acceptance of what is being proposed.

In terms of the organization in question, it’s not that they have a culture that disrespects authority or ignores organizational imperatives. Far from it. They’re a governmental organization that understands and respects the decision making authority and hierarchy that exists. However, they also have a well-defined culture that emphasize results, and actively resists anything that adds to their workload without providing perceived value. If a change is going to be made, they need to want to make the change. Otherwise a change initiative is going nowhere.

This isn’t unique to this organization, however. In fact, it makes explicit behaviours that are common in most organizations. For the change leaders who are seeking executive insistence of compliance, there is a naive presumption that this is actually how change occurs. And certainly, we can see numerous instances where such edicts have been issued. At the same time, even in the most hierarchical of organizations those expectations often fall flat. As with the demands placed on the telecommunications company by their quality certification process, compliance was only in place to the degree that it was forced. The moment that attention shifted elsewhere, the behaviours instantly reverted back to those valued by the dominant culture.

Culture change is possible, but it is not speedy, predictable or easily driven. It is an incremental and slow process that consists largely of discoveries, nudges, suggestions, experiments and the staff of the organization finding out and developing for themselves what actually works. Process plays a role in that. But process is the cart that follows after culture’s horse. You can’t impose a process on an organization and hope that the culture will magically shift. But the culture will define what is possible in terms of process.

2 Comments to “You Can’t Implement Process And Get Culture”

  1. Ambaka Hodkinson says:

    Mark, thanks for this article. What you have written is what I have been experiencing. You’ve helped me remember incremental and slow, nudging and suggestions are timely reminders for me in the decision making process. Thank you for writing in the middle of a whirlwind of travel.

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Hey, Ambaka!

      My whirlwind of travel led to a whirlwind of email. Sorry it took me so long to respond!

      Thanks so much for your feedback. I am so happy that the writing is resonating, and speaking to your world. Hopefully it provided some useful guidance.

      Looking forward to keeping in touch!

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