Five Tips For Working With a Company’s Personality

There’s a lot of discussion nowadays about company culture, core values, and mission statements.  While there can be a cynical tendency to treat these as checklist items of a management fad, I think there’s really something there.  Companies do have personalities, and if you can read them correctly, you can predict how a company will make decisions or respond to challenges, and at the very least instruct you on the sort of questions they will ask.

It’s not always so simple, however.  Understanding a company’s personality and adjusting to it for project success is a continuous effort of analysis and interaction.

At one client of mine, the project’s objective was (in my words) attempting to make Microsoft SharePoint work like Facebook.  I thought I was doing a great job to question this immediately, as it sounded like a really bad idea.  Why do this? I asked.  Why not call up Facebook and try to buy a private instance?

I was told that the client had a strong bias towards building things themselves – this was the company’s personality.  As a consequence, I was told to simply drop the question.  So we built a prototype that tried to twist SharePoint into uncomfortable shapes, and given that it was the sort of project that should never have been attempted, I think we did a pretty good job.  The client?  The client was ultimately dissatisfied and proceeded to look for a product to buy.

So what happened?  We thought we understood the company’s personality, and maybe we were right.  In the end, though, they did exactly what we thought they wouldn’t do.  What could we have done differently?

I think there were several factors at play here.

First, we may have simply been wrong about the company’s personality.  That assessment was handed to me by someone else on my second day with the company, and I had no information to make that assessment myself.

Second, right or wrong about their personality, I shouldn’t have let myself be warned off when I asked the question initially.  I should have taken that up with the project stakeholders to hear their thoughts on it.

Third, it’s always possible that the only way the company was going to realize the need to purchase a solution was to see how difficult it was to build something custom.  From that perspective, our prototype was valuable: we helped them get to a conclusion they would not have reached on their own.

In short, having been alerted to the company’s personality, I should have confronted it and talked about it.  Leaving it unspoken – and assuming that we understood the personality and its consequences for the project – simply led to frustration.

So what are the steps to engaging with a company with full recognition of its personality and culture?

  1. Be aware of the company’s personality, but constantly test your assumptions to improve your understanding.
  2. Be open with your client about the tendencies you see. Ask questions about how to modify your project’s approach and communications to fit the client.
  3. Understand when your project will be in conflict with the company culture and prepare for it. Sometimes you’ll have to challenge it, and the case you make will have to be extra strong.
  4. Work to the strong suits of the company culture. A company’s personality will have positive attributes you can leverage to your project’s advantage.
  5. Be respectful of the company’s culture and personality. You may have to challenge it for your project, but you don’t have to be adversarial when you do.  And you’re definitely not going to be able to change it.

This recognition, respect, and collaboration can all lead to a more positive project experience and build to project success.

This is an edited excerpt from my book, Project Leader to Project Believer.


The Mail Must Go Through

We talk a lot these days about corporate cultures.  Mostly it’s because we focus on how, as a person and employee, we fit into the company, and whether we share its values.  This is certainly important, but there’s another dimension to this: how does a company culture impact its projects?

Some years ago I was working a for a major international overnight delivery service.  When I worked there I learned that they had gone through different cultural phases, such as one where information technology was valued, for example.  The dominant theme in my time there was successful delivery at any cost.

Remember the movie “Castaway” with Tom Hanks, and how his character is fixated on time and keeps himself sane by keeping a package safe until he can deliver it himself?  Those were certainly the values of my client.  I heard many times about how they made a special flight to deliver medicine to a sick little girl.  Regional managers had to have complete discretion in order to ensure that deliveries were made.  Nobody wanted to be the guy who stopped medicine from getting to that sick little girl.

Those values came into play on my project.  We were planning the implementation of a procurement system, but we were taking a holistic view of it: people, process, and technology all had to be aligned.

In the process area, we spent a lot of time assessing process best practices in procurement and how they could assist the client.

A significant case in point was spending limits: how much money could somebody spend before a manager or someone else had to approve it?  I forget exactly what the spending limit was when we got there, but was on the order of thousands of dollars each, regardless of who the employee was.  This meant that, any given time, the collective employees could commit the company to hundreds of millions of dollars of expense with no approval by anyone.  Naturally, we put together a standard signing limit table: the average employee could to spend up to $250 without approval, a supervisor could spent $1500 or so, and so on.

When we presented these ideas, however, we got no response.  Eventually we were able to extract an explanation.  If that spending limit meant a part couldn’t get purchased to fix the truck to make a delivery on time, it wouldn’t be acceptable.  No one was willing to take any part of that risk.

The technical side of the equation was equally frustrating.  Part of the planned system implementation was PeopleSoft, which was especially noted at the time for its vast configurability.  Any business rule, any business function, could be configured to suit the company’s needs.

We explained this to our client, but kept getting the same confusing response.  How does it work? they would ask.  How does the system say it has to work?

You can configure it, we kept saying.  How do you want it to work?

Eventually we figured out what was going on.  Our team members weren’t dumb.  They were well aware that no limitations could be put into the business process that would conflict with the power of a regional manager.  If the system could be configured, it could be configured with any parameters desired.  They would have to go ask people what those parameters should be.  The explanation would reveal the broad capabilities of configuration that were available, and then all hell would break loose.  The loosest possible business rules would be demanded.  Anything to provide ultimate flexibility when a package needed to be delivered.

To solve that, our team wanted to tell everyone that it wasn’t configurable at all.  They wanted the system to dictate all the process best practices we were discussing, so they would never have to deal with the demands for flexibility, which they knew would ultimately undermine the whole project.

There’s more to the story of that project, but in the end, the big, high-impact vision we had for the project was simply unattainable.  All because of a company’s culture.