Want to change your culture? Start with your projects

Want to change your culture? Start with your projects

Things you need to consider before you roll out new projects across your enterprise

Culture change is hard, that’s why few organisations take it on. There’s a reliance on new people coming in to an organisation to drive change in a way that hasn’t been seen before and yet all too often those people will come up against brick walls.

Two years later, these people are gone and at their farewell speech, they’ll be told by countless people that ‘you're too good for this place’ or ‘we knew you’d get frustrated here’.

In Australia only 24 per cent of staff were found to be engaged in their work, with 16 per cent being actively disengaged, according to a 2013 workplace report.

The remaining 60 per cent don’t care either way, but will likely see their job as a means to an end. Organisations such as Atlassian, Google, Zappos and Apple are frequently held up as examples of great working cultures with high staff engagement, yet there is nothing stopping any organisation from creating something similar. Nothing that is, except for the values and behaviours of those who have the opportunity make a difference.

Can a government organisation have staff engagement similar to Atlassian?

Dedicated public servants will tell you ‘no’ because of financial constraints, a lack of innovation, no real vision, a lack of prioritisation, complexity of process, or poor hiring policies.

However in my experience it’s down to the fact that it’s just seen as being too hard. Too hard to make it easy to do things; too hard to manage poor performance; too hard to influence senior management; and too hard to make the time for innovation.

Everybody is busy, so the culture can wait. And yet, with executive support and a good plan of action, you can incrementally change the way you do things for the better.

So how can your projects help you change your culture? Projects are unique pieces of work that exist for relatively short periods of time, demand different ways of working and involve people from disparate teams (and sometimes locations) across the organisation.

Given their difference to business as usual, they are a perfect place to instill new behaviours, try out different ideas or provide teams with the time and support to innovate.

All of the ingredients required to change your culture can be addressed through the normal course of business, however if you’re struggling to get started, then your projects could be a perfect place to start.

Here are some things you need to consider before you roll out new projects across your enterprise.


The best projects, and the best organisations, have strong leaders. People who are champions for change, authentic, fearless, loyal, fun and great at creating teams who collectively want to succeed. They take their work seriously, but not themselves and they are the future of your organisation.

These people should be given the chance to transform your organisation and they can do that through sponsoring or managing your projects. Leadership is a choice and rewarding it (either financially or through active engagement in larger initiatives) will help others to make that choice as well.


Some organisations that I’ve worked with have gone to great lengths to describe the behaviours expected of their staff. Project Leaders can ensure that where those behaviours are demonstrated, they’re praised and rewarded.

Conversely, where they aren't demonstrated they're called out immediately. It requires strong leadership, but then so does changing a culture. If your company hasn’t articulated the required behaviours, then let a project take the lead in demonstrating what good looks like.


The days of ‘one size fits all’ cumbersome ways of working are at an end. Regardless of the processes your organisation has for delivering you should give your projects the opportunity to challenge and find a better way to do things.

Does it take six months to get a business case written and signed off? Challenge your projects to produce a similar level of quality in two months, calling out where it hits a roadblock. The millennial workforce won’t accept inefficiency in the way that you currently work, so if you don’t adapt, you run the risk of losing the very people who can make the difference you seek.


I’m continually dismayed by the complexity of communications released to staff. Acronyms, technical jargon, long emails, 100 page documents. All of these things are of our own making and we can change them all.

Simplicity of communication requires a big change in behaviours, but your projects can take the lead here by being more humanistic from the start.

More face-to-face contact, fewer emails and formal memos; more one-page summaries, fewer 20-page presentations; more simple language that everyone can understand, fewer acronyms. Resist the urge to give your project a fancy name, call it what it is and let that set the tone for the organisation.


It’s been almost four years since the iPad was launched and since then, the market has been flooded with many tools to transform our working lives. Yet we’re still printing out emails and 40-page reports to distribute at meetings.

If your organisation hasn’t embraced this technology yet, then equip your projects with it and let them prove the cost and time savings to justify the spend.

Again, it will require a behavioural change that the project leadership will need to uphold, but very quickly everything – and I do mean everything – will be at your fingertips, without the need for huge colour print runs on the night before a meeting.


If there's one thing your project should do well it’s collaboration. You should already be looking at how your best projects delivered and what the organisation as a whole can learn from that.

Pulling a multi-skilled team from across the organisation and getting it to work cohesively is a difficult thing to do if you don’t have the right leadership, behaviours and working environment.

Creating the right kind of physical spaces (barrier removal); making everyone part of the planning process – using Kanban for example – holding events so that teams can get to understand each other a little better and then jointly celebrating the success of the team are all things you can do to create a solution focussed, positive culture.


Innovation demands two things; an open mind and time. Your organisation should have a good mix of people who are able to keep an open mind when looking for solutions to problems, but they’ll no doubt be prevented from innovating by the issue of the day.

Having the right leader will ensure that the right kind of environment will exist that supports innovation and good planning will ensure that time is built-in to allow it to flourish.

Even when you hit a roadblock, time should be found to look for different ways to solve it. Being at the forefront of new approaches and solutions will ensure that you will be an employer of choice for current and future staff for years to come.

Culture change is not something that should be undertaken lightly. You need to articulate what good looks like and then dedicate executive leadership to lead and support it.

But don’t make the mistake of trying to implement it all at once. Pick something to get the ball rolling and where better to test this than in one of your projects?

Colin Ellis is a project management expert who believes that strong leadership aligned with sensible approaches are at the heart of successful project management and he is engaged by organisations who want just that. Find out more at his website or follow him on Twitter: @colindellis

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