Matching Culture to Projects

Professionals who work in high-tension fields – pilots, police and soldiers – are prone to react to dire situations in either of two ways. Some revert to what intuition and experience have acculturated them to do, regardless of the prescribed processes they might have been trained and re-trained to do. Others, when lives are on the line, go strictly by the book, scrupulously following prescribed processes without question.

Institutions, likewise, have cultures that govern behavior. When something new meets an established culture, culture usually prevails. In banks, Information Technology (IT) development projects typically reveal culture and are somewhat captive to it.

At one end of the culture spectrum is the bank for which process is next to godliness. No matter the end goal, development projects hew tightly to a rigid, project-managed process and trust that process to deliver the right answers and the right results on a predictable schedule. The process is documented in comprehensive detail, and all parties to the project adhere to its requirements. If problems arise, new steps are incorporated to solve them and they become part of the permanent process. No matter how urgent the outcome or how little risk is involved, process is king.

At the other end of the spectrum is the bank where process is routinely subordinated to enthusiasm and intuition. A one-time request from a key customer for a new product can almost overnight turn into a high-priority, all-hands-on-deck project, with little assumption testing and less project-management oversight. Speed in meeting the customer’s request is everything. Projects can start with few formalities and can be quickly abandoned, too, if enthusiasm fades or obstacles arise.

Metrics are difficult to apply to such free-wheeling projects, first, because it’s hard to know when they are even projects, and second, because they don’t come with hard and fast requirements, milestones and checkpoints. In many cases, these projects get under way before a formal return on investment (ROI) is estimated, so whether they achieve the goal or not is usually a matter of conjecture.

Obviously, those are the extremes and most bank cultures fall somewhere in between. But wherever your bank falls on the continuum matters a great deal when you wish to undertake an important technology project. If you are in a process-heavy culture, your energies will be focused on getting that process to give way to innovation and experimentation. If you are in a process-light culture, you have to use your energy and resources to compensate for lack of process.

Play to Strengths

No matter the culture, you can still be successful with your technology projects. You just need to exploit the advantages of the prevailing culture and skirt the pitfalls of each. Successful organizations “play to their strength and cover their weakness.” To find your bank’s place on the spectrum, consider these questions:

  • Where are the projects officially initiated in your bank? Are they formally launched by a cross-company team, or called forth more or less unilaterally by a business unit?
  • How are priorities set? How is scope delineated, and does it change frequently? For clear reasons?
  • How are customer needs arrived at? By a formal statistical methodology, or are they aggregated through product managers who regularly spend time talking to customers?
  • How are the requirements documented and verified? While your bank may have very formally defined processes, are they followed by those who really seem to get things done?
  • Are lessons learned formally captured and utilized?

If you’re in a process-heavy organization, you do have some advantages. You probably have tools that help you identify the pain points in a process in a highly disciplined way. That improves the odds that any changes you make will precisely address the demands of the business unit and its customers. In addition, a well-defined process makes work more organized, clear, and predictable for its participants and logically makes it easier for them to meet project deadlines. It helps them anticipate and mitigate risks.

But the pitfalls are unmistakable, too. A heavy focus on process almost always slows down progress and this at a time when speed-to-market has never been more important in financial services. Training proves to be a challenge, too. Long-term employees are often not convinced that the process is necessary nor are they interested in departing from what has, they believe, worked for them for years. Newer employees, accustomed to making their own success and unaccustomed to having tested tools at their disposal, may resist having their creativity inhibited by an established process. They may depart from prescribed activities here or there without understanding the implications for the rest of the process.

Change Agents

Relatively free-wheeling cultures are rare in today’s heavily regulated world, but they do exist. Innovation thrives in such cultures. Change agents gravitate to them and thrive there. Instead of emerging from process, decisions are made by senior managers. As a result senior management ends up being satisfied with the results – no small advantage when it comes to keeping a project moving forward under approving eyes.

A process-light culture also allows the project team to move rapidly without being caught up in processes deemed to be a waste of time and resources. The result is as good as it would have been with a formal process, especially when the project involves fairly straightforward change.

Customer needs are handled differently in process-light cultures. Without a formal, documented collection and feedback process, intuition and anecdote get substituted for data. Not until implementation time is it evident whether there’s a match or not. The change being implemented may be important to a small subset of customers but might disappoint others.

Sometimes speed-to-market prevails but delays can also occur. Even something as simple as who is responsible for what tasks can become uncertain so you wait on senior managers to make the call, sometimes after multiple ad hoc meetings. These two drawbacks can add up to cost overruns.

So, it’s paramount to understand your company’s prevailing culture. Not only do projects go better when individuals understand their culture, but they also find themselves much better positioned to perform well and enjoy their project involvement. If you are the only process-focused person on your team, make sure the team knows why those traits are valuable and how to leverage them. If intuition and spontaneity are more in your line, do the same. Great projects are a matter of matching up with the culture.

Mr. Stuart is managing partner and Ms. Patel a senior consultant at Irving, Tex.-based ABeam Consulting USA. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]