Cultural mastery is the new frontier for project management

Atta Emami

Atta Emami

For most of my career I’ve been involved in the Project and Program Management fields.

In 2002, I attended the first PMI Certified Project Management program at the University of British Columbia, and following that I earned numerous certifications in that discipline—from PMI, Agile, and Scrum to Queen’s University Project Leadership Certification and Negotiation and Leadership trainings.

I’ve managed numerous projects, programs, and portfolios in financial and health sectors, worked with over 50 Project Managers, and interviewed over 200 of them. In addition, I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to mentor and coach some excellent Project and Program Managers.

Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve witnessed the unique challenges that I and my fellow colleagues go through time after time in applying our systematic learning in complex situations—especially when we find ourselves in uncharted territory.

For seven years, while managing a portfolio of five programs and projects, some of the top challenges that would always show up were a lack of engagement with customers, sponsor(s), the project-team, and end-users. Sound familiar?

Without fail, some combination of these core issues would show up in each project. And when I interviewed other Project Managers and Program Managers, I‘d hear frustration with these same challenges in their projects as well.

Often one group or one person was not as engaged—even though the PM did everything they could to highlight this issue as soon as they felt it. After facilitating numerous meetings, adding this item to their risk-log, and sometimes escalating, ultimately the problem didn’t go away and predictably re-surfaced again during the re-cap of lessons learned.

Peter Drucker, the founder of modern management, sums this pattern up neatly when he quips, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

What Drucker is pointing to is the age-old struggle we face as PMs—that tactical strategy will only get us so far. To go the rest of the distance, we need cultural mastery.

You probably know this textbook challenge well: you facilitate a group of executives to come up with an organizational strategy, come up with the tasks and action plans to change and align employees’ behaviors to support those strategies. The project gets initiated, planned, and executed.

Yet a few months after completion, statistically almost 80% of these projects fail to show any sign of lasting behavioral changes in employees.

As the PM, you precisely followed all the necessary steps you were taught to follow—yet employee behavior didn’t transform to the desired state.

What’s going on? What are we not seeing?

Over the last 9 months, I’ve been immersed in a training program that has answered this question for me. Here it is:

As professional Project Managers (including PMI, Agile Coaches, CSM, and PRINCE2 practitioners), we learn a variety of tactical maneuvers that predominantly focus on creating tasks, taking actions, asking others to take action, or creating systems, maps, and/or structures to manage the challenge at hand.

These are critical tools.

Yet over time, many of us reach a plateau in our skill development and professional learning. We’ve covered the core skill development courses, programs, and seminars, we realize that we already know this material inside and out.

And in one sense, that might be true—we have covered the majority of externally focused material in our field. But in spite of that, we’re left with a sense of wanting something more.

We experience first hand that the 4 and 5-step prefabricated methods we’ve mastered are no longer sufficient to address the organizational needs we are hired to solve. For those wanting to serve their organizations at a higher level there’s a sense of being stuck.

This is because while we’re masters of tactics, we typically know a lot less about how to work with the invisible, internal dimensions of teams—Drucker’s “strategy-eating” culture.

As Project and Program Managers, we have the opportunity to transform organizations by motivating, engaging, and elevating the people around them. But in order to do that, we have to become as adept at working with culture as we are at working with systems and behaviors.

Having just completed one of the preeminent advanced facilitation trainings in the world that addresses these internal dynamics of group culture (Integral Facilitator Certificate Program), here’s a short list of what I gained:

  • The cultural skills to engage employees at a deeper level
  • Refined listening ability that tunes into what people are not saying as much as what they are saying
  • The capability to engage conflict with skill and surface the underlying dynamics and resistance
  • The ability to facilitate energy levels in the group—increasing it or calming—depending on what most supports efficiency and action
  • The know-how to navigate complex transformations to change mindsets and make lasting behavior change

And I can assure you, these are the skills we need to avoid having our strategies eaten by our cultures.

As professional PMs, we owe it to the organizations and groups we serve to embody these developmental skills.

But let me also address one of the biggest objections I hear from my peers—that they already know enough.

As a PM, I appreciate how at the outset facilitation training might seem like overkill for us because this is what we do on a daily basis. Most of my PM friends think they’ve got enough facilitation skill already—but the truth is, advanced integral facilitation is nothing like the facilitation training courses you and I have taken over the years to keep our PM designation up-to-date.

Through Integral Facilitation, you’ll learn to author your way—and much more—to self-mastery. You’ll get the next-level support you need to be able to navigate through the powerful aspects of cultural dynamics that are always at work—whether we see them or not.

By combining cultural skill with the tactical abilities you’ve already secured, you’ll be able to open the way for creating breakthrough results for your organizations.

Under the pressure of navigating complex changes, the tactical steps we’ve all learned aren’t sufficient anymore. What we really need is to learn to create our own unique way of handling such complex challenges in agile, adaptive and emergent ways.

If you want to serve your organizations at a new level, I encourage you to get rigorous training in working with culture—and if you’re ready to begin, the Integral Facilitator approach will meet you right where you are, and take you to the next level.

Go here for more info about the Integral Facilitator® Certificate Program.

Atta Emami, MBA, MSc.
Change Leader, Facilitator, Leadership Coach
Certified Integral Facilitator®

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7 thoughts on “Cultural mastery is the new frontier for project management”

  1. Laura J. Nigro, M.S.

    Hi, Atta. Good link you make to business enterprise. And glad about your own 10D-inflected influence in that domain!

    I just read a new post by Otto Scharmer (MIT Sloan School of Mgt) which, among other things, explicates distinction between the internal social FIELD v. the external social SYSTEM. It might further illuminate these challenges you raise with culture mastery — although maybe more so for major-change initiatives than routine PM.

    Anyone up for a lengthy, complex deeper dive into Scharmer’s ideas about this can check them out here:

    1. Hi Laura – thanks for your comments. Through the Integral Facilitator Program – using my view of Otto’s work: one gets to experience and strengthen the muscle to go to the “Bottom of the U”, let go of what is, and trust in her/his own ability to let what’s emerging come into the present moment, and similarly apply this within groups. One uses his/her own discernment, to let new and unique experiences come alive, holding multiple perspectives. And, tailor it to the needs of the initiative, be it a transformational change or a developmental (clear end-date, routine) one. IF’s beauty lies in its scalability.

  2. Bettyynn Stoops

    Hi there,
    good article Atta, I was with the fed gov as a senior DG of IT when I left the ‘field’ and lead transformation in government services… I am still doing this tranformative work and know that what you are doing is a great example of what working from the heart can mean when interacting with users and client sponsors for PMP work.

    I am writing a book on leader – teacher…. what do YOU think are the attributes of leadership from your POV in your cultural environment? love to hear from you and others…

    1. Hi! thanks for your comments. I’ll take your offer on my POV of the attributes leaders need to have and maybe even blog about it later. In the meantime, if I can be of any support on the transformational change aspects you are working on please reach out to me via LinkedIn or here. Best wishes on your upcoming book and the great work you are doing in the gov sector.

  3. Atta, I couldn’t have summed it up any better. I echo the sentiment and your real life examples. Cultures are the most intrusive and damaging ; OR by the same vain, the most enabling forces in managing any project. 1. People (cultures), 2.Process and then 3.Technology

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