Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/10/27

Corporate culture

Corporate Culture: beyond the buzzword

The best definition of corporate culture I have ever read is from William Schneider who says that corporate culture can be summarized as, “how we do things around here in order to succeed.” (The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work 1999). What I appreciate about that definition is that it is free from the jargon that typically surrounds business philosophy and elevates corporate culture to a necessary concept that even the most hard-bitten line worker, technician or project manager could appreciate. It also implies that corporate culture is not an option, but rather a result of collective trial-and-error.

Being culturally bilingual

Few things are as fundamental to a project’s success as the project managers ability to understand and work well in various corporate cultures. In a given project, there may be as many as two-dozen cultures that may need to be understood to varying levels in order for the project to be a success. The client, the customer, the various vendors and the other stakeholders each see the world in different (sometimes very different) ways.

In a recent construction project in Miami, I worked with a hospitality client that had a culture that valued chaos, elevating it to a corporate value, believing it produced truly amazing products in the end. This did not happen by chance. Chaos had served them well time and again and the decision to formalize this into a corporate value was therefore completely rationale. It happens that this is not a corporate value for my client, the IT vendor for whom I was managing the project. In a sense I needed to be bilingual. I learned early on that the way in which I presented information–specifically when it came to signing agreements or making decisions–must be in the context of allowing the end-client greater freedom or expanding their options.

From resignation to Gemeinschaftsgefühl

Anecdotally, I find that most project managers have a love-hate relationship with chaos and change. Truth be told, it would be easier to manage projects if all companies shared a common culture and set of values. On one hand, without chaos, there would be no need for project managers, or projects for that matter. For this, we are grateful because that means we have job security. On the other hand, if a project manager is talented, the amount of damaging chaos should be controlled as part of risk management and issue resolution. I think most PMs genuinely enjoy taming the wild and prefer order. At minimum, a PM must accept that the world is chaotic; in other words, simple resignation. That said, there is a better alternative, an alternative that allows us to thrive in a variety of cultures.

After working in a number of different cultures and with a lot of different people, I have come to enjoy the process of learning how to adapt to get the job done. It is a little like playing music with a new band and the inner rush of improvising without discussing the song ahead of time. At the risk of waxing too psychological, a good PM is a self-actualized PM. Maslow observed that self-actualized people “had a sense of humility and respect towards others — something [he] also called democratic values — meaning that they were open to ethnic and individual variety, even treasuring it.  They had a quality [he] called human kinship or Gemeinschaftsgefühl — social interest, compassion, humanity.” (Dr. C. George Boeree)

This attitude is so important to have when the sprint becomes a marathon, because it will dictate whether you gain energy or lose energy from the differences of those around you.

The big takeaways

For companies: the kindest thing you can do for new-hires or contractors is to explain to them is everyday words, “how we do things around here in order to succeed.” If this is the same as your formal mission statement or values, all the better.

For PMs / business analysts / contractors: Develop the:

  1. Ability to quickly surmise the actual corporate cultures of those companies you work with
  2. Mindset of excitement when you have opportunities to develop even greater dexterity in your communication and work style

Image from here.


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