Groundhog Day part II

   Many IT organizations seem to be stuck in "Groundhog Day."  They make the same mistakes over and over again, and then methodically vow at the end never to make those mistakes again.  And then next time they do it all over again.  The Lessons Learned sessions at project end often cite lessons that everybody thought had been learned before.  (Maybe we ought to start calling these Lessons Unlearned sessions.)
   Organizations that can't change are like skiers, caught in the rut of past skiers tracks and unable to break free to make a new track of their own.  The rut they're in is their corporate culture. 


Tom DeMarco

   We often talk about corporate culture, particularly when we try to explain why a given change that seemed to make sense to everyone just couldn't get established.  We say "the culture didn't allow the change to happen."  So far so good, but then the conversation ends.  The follow-on conversation about What do we have to change about our culture and how do we go about it? most often never gets started.  We make our pronouncement that the culture is the problem and then we shrug and turn our attention to something else. 
   We don't even know how to talk about corporate culture.  We lack vocabulary, definitions and ground rules.  Yet this is a conversation that needs to precede any really ambitious change.
   I'm indebted to my friend Jerry Weinberg for a working definition of corporate culture, a definition that often helps in kick starting a conversation on the topic.  In Jerry's view,

Corporate Culture is a set of unwritten rules, commonly understood and universally obeyed by all members of the group. 

   Let's take an example: In some organizations there is an unwritten rule that you must never finish work much before the date that you agreed to.  So if you ask for five months to get a project done, you simply are not allowed to finish in three and a half. You could probably finish a week early and be congratulated, but finishing six weeks early makes you someone not to be trusted. 
   This rule is a disaster.  If you're not allowed to beat your estimate, then you're never going to finish on time.  Think about it.  If the rule applies in your organization, you have to repeal it.  It's possible to repeal such rules, but only if you put them on the table and examine them in detail.  You'll never get beyond them if they remain unwritten and undiscussed.
   In our book on corporate culture, Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior, we found it easiest to observe the pattern of behavior first and then tease out the underlying rule.  Only when these first two steps are completed can we begin the (still difficult) task of tailoring the corporate culture to the organization's real needs. That's something that desperately needs to be done.  Let me say that even more directly: You need to design and revamp your corporate culture to align with the organization's real goals.  A failure to do this will result in an organization whose goals are tailored to align with the needs of the existing culture.

Tom DeMarco
Camden, Maine