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The dynamic duo: How culture and communication shape project outcomes

  • Publish Date: Posted 8 months ago

What is behind the success of certain projects and the failure of others? During my involvement with technology and business transformation programmes in the Hong Kong market, this is a topic that has always fascinated me.

There are, of course, many reasons why some projects are successful and others less so, but over the years, certain points of failure have become increasingly evident.

Any project or program needs a fundamental rigour to be successful. Well-defined governance structures, proper planning, and budgetary best practices must sit alongside an effective project management methodology and strong people capabilities.

If I had to pick one element that defines a successful outcome, however, it would be culture. Before reaching the delivery phase of a project, good culture should be a fundamental consideration. Good culture means everyone pulling in the same direction to achieve an outcome.

The contribution of culture

Every so often, you come across multi-year, multi-million-dollar programmes of such scale and complexity that even the most grizzled of programme directors are daunted. It's programmes of this nature where culture can make a significant contribution to success.

In an environment with multiple stakeholders, internal departments and vendors, it is more likely that interests and goals may be out of alignment, with various groups holding separate agendas and striving for different objectives. In this situation, it can be very challenging to get everybody aligned towards a single outcome.

Even where there is alignment of interests, it can be either supportive or limiting. A highly regimented ‘military command’-style programme methodology, for example, can create a less collaborative culture that stifles any creative elements in the programme.

Strong cultural awareness is a key skill for programme directors, but it is often overlooked. And programme culture needs to be matched to everyone involved – from the project management team to the executive committee – in order for it to drive a successful outcome.

The art of communication

However, the real art of project management is in communication: what we say, how we say it and to whom we say it.

As you increase the scale of a project, you add complexity – including organisational complexity – which results in different groups being impacted by the programme in different ways.

The critical path to success is never going to be a one-size-fits-all approach, therefore, so how and what you communicate becomes all the more important.

Your project cannot be kept on track without managing the scope increase with all stakeholders, and the key risks identified in your risk register cannot be managed without it being kept alive in the project environment. Effective communication is at the centre of both.

You also need to communicate to ‘the troops’ what is happening with the project in order to keep them motivated and inspired. If you’re not celebrating wins, communicating about what has gone well and what hasn't gone so well – and the lessons learned from both – it is easy for your people to become demotivated and disengaged, and, ultimately, there may be attrition of talent.

Communication and culture are intertwined

Whatever means of communication you have at your disposal – Slack channels, Microsoft Teams calls, the morning face-to-face ‘huddle’ - they should enable stakeholders to stay informed, to provide input, and to ensure that they're along for the journey.

In driving a good culture, I’ve also seen programme directors look beyond the typical channels within programme governance and enjoy good success as a result.

A “one team” approach, where everyone involved in a programme has a sense of belonging - rather than being siloed in their internal departments or external vendor groups - is an effective way of bringing people together and aligning common goals.

This is where communications become so important – and starts to meld with culture. Branding a programme with a ‘codename’ creates a common identity that embeds the ‘one team’ approach among contractors, full-time employees, vendors, and other stakeholders.

Deciding who will take the lead on communicating programme culture is also key. Some people are naturally good communicators, while others may be less intuitive in their approach to communications.

Recognising that communication is a specialist skillset, and deciding to embed it as part of a wider strategy is a highly effective way to drive success in a programme of scale.

Programme directors may therefore, choose to bring in a communications specialist who is better equipped to assess the culture of an organisation, identify the challenges and/or benefits of that culture, and work out the best communications strategy for bringing everybody together as a single team.

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