At the start of one of my keynotes or training sessions, I like to ask people about the best project experience they’ve ever had and what made it the best. No matter where I am, the answers are almost always the same:
- I was supported to do my work.
- I was involved in the planning of the project.
- Everyone on the team knew that what we were building would make a difference.
- We had a laugh!
- There were tough periods but I always felt motivated to succeed.
- The project manager/sponsor was someone we looked up to.
- We were given the time (and opportunity) to try different things.
- The people around me knew what they were doing.
In short, they were the best projects because of their working culture. The people I talk to at a training session don’t mention the qualifications that were pinned up on a person’s wall or the textbooks on their desk, but they’ll go to great lengths to tell me about the breakfast the project manager bought them every Monday morning!
Creating an environment of success
Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson said, “The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas, it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.” When it comes to projects, the project managers or team leads are the creative leaders. They are the ones responsible for creating an environment of success, and the ones setting the pace to challenge the way things are done in pursuit of something better. Only then will a project truly achieve its outcomes.
Some project management professionals and team leaders are afraid of the word “culture” because it seems too big to comprehend—or too abstract. Some don’t believe that they have the authority to build a culture or to change that which already exists in their organization.
However, let’s say you define culture as simply “the way we do things around here.” In that sense, project managers are in a unique position because they have an opportunity to create something that can become truly memorable. What they need more than anything is the knowledge of how to impact how “things are done around here.”
Memorable project managers
Like innovation and collaboration, culture is a word that’s thrown around by senior leaders; few of them really understand that it starts with their own behaviors—and if they do they’re not willing to step up. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but in order to create an environment of success where people feel empowered, cared for and their efforts appreciated, the starting point is almost always looking at them in the mirror.
Great project managers (and leaders) can create a culture in which team members thrive. This is why they’re remembered; this is why they’re talked about and why people would jump at the chance of working with them again. These types of leaders might have solid domain expertise or know how to spin post-it notes like Tom Cruise did cocktails in Cocktail, but they also know how to build something that people want to be part of, and that makes all the difference.
Project managers who create and influence strong cultures put significant effort, time and thought into the following:
- Team mix, particularly personalities
- The physical working environment
- Project planning—and how to make the process collaborative and enjoyable
- Clarity of task setting and feedback
- Humor and when to use it
- What the customer needs and how best to service that need
- Tools and how best to use them
- Social events that bond the team and improve teamwork.
Not everything will work, that’s the thing about culture: There’s no one-size-fits-all setting. You have to keep cutting out the stuff that doesn’t work and inserting new stuff that does. Once you have the right mix, a good culture will become a project manager’s watermark and it will be imprinted on everything they do.
Creating a project tribe
Project managers know when they get this right because their project tribe will challenge, follow and support them in order to get the job done. Not only that, but word will spread and other people inside the organization will want to join the team too. It’s a fantastic feeling, a validation that they have created something special, and that’s something to celebrate at the end of the day.
Creating a unique culture takes time, energy, dedication, and knowledge. However, when it comes to consistent, successful delivery project culture is the one thing that sets the good project managers apart from the rest.
Getting started shaping your culture
You can start today by spending an hour with your team—as a group or as individuals. Take people out for coffee or lunch and ask how they’re doing. Actively listen, take a real interest, and commit to repeating the exercise every week. It’s a small step, but one that will immediately set you apart from others.
As Seth Godin said recently “culture is organized around the people who get on base, who reliably keep their promises, who deliver.”
What are you doing to get on base?