by David Cotgreave

Business culture or business case?

Jun 09, 2016
IT LeadershipProject Management Tools

If your project had to be aligned with just one, which would you pick? We discuss the merits of both business culture and business case.

It was a client who asked me, “David, you talk about alignment a lot. Business culture. Business case. Which should we strive for?”

I gave him a lawyer’s answer — I said, “Both.”

On reflection, I think that by achieving one you will, with a bit of luck, achieve the other.

Like most things, it all depends on upon your organization.

I think, as project leaders, by aligning everything we do with business case, we can actually become influencers of business culture.

When finance directors, the board or any project sponsor starts to see better than expected return on investment from us, the project team, we become an example of best practice that other areas of the business should seek to emulate.

Most project managers that I work with now are of this breed.

Everything that they do adds value to the business — anything that does not is regarded as a waste of their time and their company’s resources.

It’s a PM culture that is aligned with business case.

This is what I see in many project management offices that I work with however many tell me that their culture is at odds with that of their parent organization. They report that other departments are less focused and more wasteful of money and resources. Governance and self-responsibility are characteristics of IT project managers that often are not shared with other department heads and if it is the behavior of these other managers that is shaping your organization’s culture then you are best to create a “republic-style culture” that is fixated with delivering business case.

As one PM put it, “Because we often don’t produce a tangible thing we have to prove that we’re good value more than other departments. Our transport department has a problem with late deliveries, we have data that backs this up, customer feedback, everything. The board see the trucks leave the depot each morning and come back each night — they see the tangible thing happening and they don’t dig any deeper. Customers are not satisfied but none have actually gone elsewhere. The Transport Manager’s attitude is “if no one else is bothered why should I?” That culture of slovenly delivery is found in other departments and is dominant in the business as a whole. If we took the same approach — if the systems went down or even weren’t available 24–7, if new software wasn’t ready when we promised — there’d be hell to pay. The IT and Project crew can’t afford to align with the overall business culture.”

So, I believe that by aligning ourselves with a business culture a natural alignment with business case can occur — but with that one major caveat — the business culture that you align with has to be congruent with the objectives, drivers and needs of the business. Sometimes they aren’t.

Businesses are made up of many types of people who often have different ideas about the reason why they clock in and out each day. Sales people can be driven by their personal targets and their bonus potential, customer facing employees may be driven by quick fix solutions, etc. Sometimes these disparate paradigms can create a culture that is not in keeping with the vision of the company owner or board or the needs of the business. If IT project managers are aligning themselves with business cultures that don’t feed business case then it can be detrimental to project success. 

Sometimes it can take a second set of eyes to take a wider view of your project management set-up and the business culture that it slots into. Project management office consultants and gap analysis can really help with this.

In England, football team Leicester City have just won the Premier League against all the odds and expert forecasts — because the manager Claudio Ranieri managed what was in front of him — he identified his team members’ strengths and capabilities and the team spirit and he adapted his management of them accordingly.

On our terms, he fitted his project management style around available resources and the business culture — the players he’d inherited had escaped relegation the season before so the culture of hard work and determination needed for a title push existed. In managing what was front of him he nurtured a culture that was built around winning. When his team conceded a goal you fully expected them to score two back — it was a cultural thing!

What a culture! He achieved the ultimate project goal and super-served the business case.

Contemplate this “organization’s” business case. More success means more revenue from TV and at the gate, more merchandise sales, interest from wealthier clubs drives up the value of their players — as I write Arsenal are seeking to secure the services of Leicester player Jamie Vardy. This organization’s culture drove performance and created the environment that aligned everything with their business strategy.

I don’t know what the corporate sales team, the program sellers, the stewards, the backroom admin guys, etc., are like at Leicester City but I’ll bet they’re feeling pretty inspired by one particular department and I’ll bet that the culture that this department’s project manager has instilled in his silo is resonating across other departments and football teams. 

We can achieve similar results with our IT project teams. With a great team spirit, the right motivation and consistent focus on business case, a culture that delivers business strategies can be created in our PMOs and project teams that resonate across organizations and even industries — it can take time.

You probably don’t have individual motivational factors like an industry equivalent of Arsenal ready to sign up your best talent if they perform well for you and OK our stuff doesn’t make Match of the Day — but we can influence business cultures by super-serving the business case.