The culture made me do it!


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How many times has someone said that something “can’t” be done because the culture doesn’t support it?

As a change agent in general, and specifically in the Project Management space, I’m always pushing boundaries and helping people find ways to push beyond their perceived organizational constraints to progress. When I start working with them, I am often faced with a lot of “yeah but” language. I know you’ve heard it before, in fact, some of us have even said it. I used to say it. I felt that I was working in extremely change resistant cultures that wouldn’t allow the PMO we were setting up to be successful. I was full of “yeah but” language.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t work in .”

“Yeah, but we have to follow the 50 steps on this checklist to get something done.”

“Yeah, but we don’t do things that way.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t work in our culture.”

JPEG image-838CBCA0F057-1That kind of language we sometimes find ourselves saying causes us to be stuck. In fact, we are perpetuating the same culture by vocalizing that it “can’t” be changed.

This is your call to action to challenge yourself to stop perpetuating this belief that shifting the culture to a more functional, focused, and deliberate way of operating is impossible. It’s not.

It’s hard.

It’s scary.

It’s frustrating.

But, it’s not impossible. And when it works, it’s incredibly rewarding. In fact, it feels amazing. Kinda like that feeling when you have accomplished a personal goal at the gym or academically achieved a higher level of education or certification. It feels amazing to push beyond what we believe to be our limits and do something that makes a big impact…especially if it was hard.

You can do that at work. You can do that in your culture. Yes, YOUR organizational culture. Yes, even you. 🙂

JPEG image-20C3A785990F-1Here are a few techniques to consider when trying to encourage a cultural shift to a more productive and effective environment.

  1. Don’t do it alone. When we know that we need to help the culture shift, we think that the mountain is too high to climb and we are in it alone. You aren’t. There are always people in your organization that think the way you do. The key is to find them and work together to slowly and deliberately influence the people that make up this culture to open their eyes to better ways of doing things. A team working together has greater influence than one voice. As someone close to me used to say, “One team, one fight!”
  2. Don’t try to do it all at once. Let’s think about where we are as a species. We are constantly evolving. In fact, our very existence depends on it. But it doesn’t happen overnight. If it did, we would have had no idea what to do with the iPhone when we were still writing on the walls of caves. The beauty of evolution is pace. We must realize that the culture shift we are trying to create must be digestible for the organization…this means slow and steady.
  3. See the forest for the trees. We can get buried in the moment and immediacy of the changes we want to make and forget to look up. The changes we make are sometimes so imperceptible that those we are influencing don’t even realize they are happening. However, to us, the change agents, the culture shift is moving at an excruciatingly slow pace. Then, we step back and can see how far we’ve come and it’s beautiful. I’ve had this experience many times when building a PMO or creating a project management culture. Just remember to take a moment to recognize the progress you’ve made. That will give you the inspiration and energy to keep going.
  4. Don’t let what you believe to be the standard stop you. I often hear things like, “We have to do x, y, z because that’s how things are done in this sector.” If you work in one of those environments with stringent processes with far too many steps to be productive, take a step back to evaluate what you are truly being asked to do. Most people that work in that environment will tell you that they must fill out 25 documents to start a project because “that’s the way it’s done.”

    I would like to challenge you (and for you to help others) to think about the impact of the work being done and the value it’s creating. Does anyone actually read the 50-page document you just created? I’m not talking about all the people doing the review cycles to make sure it’s perfect before it’s delivered. I’m talking about the consumer of the information. Are they using it? Is it causing action, change, or progress? If the answer is no, then maybe you still must “do” the document, but maybe you can find a way to streamline the process of reviews or simplify the content. Think about it…just because a deliverable must be created, where does it say it must be 50 pages? Will 20 do and get the same point across? Will one review cycle be good enough? Your level of effort here should be proportional to how impactful the deliverable is in moving the project forward or supporting sustainability of the project deliverables.

  5. It’s OK to be a disruptor. We often get scared that making noise will get us fired. How often is that really the case? Innovation and change only come because someone was brave enough to make some noise, question the process, propose a new idea, or challenge the status quo. I was often known for this in my organizations and it annoyed some people. There will be people that don’t want the culture to shift because they are either benefiting from the way things are now or they are scared that the cultural shift will negatively impact them. Decide which is more beneficial (less painful) to you…living with the culture (or process) the way it is or having someone temporarily upset with you because you challenged their way of thinking. Innovation comes when we stop tying ourselves down by believing that we cannot accomplish something, that we cannot make a change, that we cannot move our culture forward to a healthier space.
  6. Occupy yourself. I remember working in an organization that digested cultural shifts very slowly. I was implementing a PMO and was so eager to start moving them on the next step and the one after that, knowing that the outcomes they had achieved thus far were nothing compared to where I wanted to take them. But they weren’t moving…very fast. They needed time to grow accustomed to the shifts we had made to the culture thus far and pushing them would only deepen resistance.

    Exasperated, I sought the guidance of a change agent mentor of mine in the organization and he said, “Go occupy yourself with other things while you wait for them to catch up.” I laughed thinking it was ridiculous, but then realized he was right. He encouraged me to work on self-development items or find a hobby outside of work that would keep me busy until it was time for the next cultural shift to happen. It worked. I channeled my craving for change into some self-development items (and increased my focus on a fun hobby outside of work) that allowed me to practice patience at work with the pace of cultural change and see it for the beautiful process that it was. Perspective is everything. 

I know that it’s not easy to work in environments where the culture seems to drive so much of the actions and decisions that people make. Trust me, I totally get it. It can be challenging to see something that you are sure will help the organization become more successful and feel that it’s out of reach. It’s not. It requires patience and a hunger to drive change. You don’t have to make it all happen at once, but you can make it happen. It starts by promising yourself you will not allow the culture to stop you from going after what you know to be a better way.

Then, you can get onto the business of driving big IMPACT for your organization with a culture that is ready to engage and foster growth. Just remember that culture eats strategy for breakfast every time, so you must address the culture first.

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