Why Project Managers Get Caught In The Middle

It is never pleasant to be caught in the middle, yet project managers often find themselves in this position. The fundamental reason why it happens is that project managers are at the center of three very different cultures. The first is the top management culture, the second is the engineering culture and the third is the team culture.

All three are fundamental to the management and execution of projects, and that will probably not change. Perhaps the only control that project managers have over these different cultures is to try to bring them into better alignment.

First let’s define what we mean by culture

Culture is a set of shared assumptions (values and beliefs) that guide the way people think and behave. For example, a shared assumption in one team might be that it is unacceptable to step over a manager’s head and register a complaint with his or her boss. In other teams, for example the culture that prevailed in the Boeing 777 project, it was acceptable and sometimes encouraged to go to a higher authority if a team member did not get the satisfaction he or she expected within his team.

Now let’s take a look at the differences among these three cultures.

Top management has its own way of thinking about projects. They think in terms of project results, use of scarce resources, budgets, financial statements, sales, and competitive markets. It is a way of thinking that reflects the influences under which they must decide and the fact that they are largely removed from the people who actually get the work done. They develop their own vocabulary by interacting with top-management in other organizations and by reading literature authored by management gurus such as Tom Peters, Jim Collins and Peter Drucker. Further, their way of thinking is reinforced when they speak to boards of directors and shareholders.

Since their span-of-control is quite broad and they manage at distances that may stretch around the world, they must rely on procedures, information systems, control system that often mask the real issues happening below them. It is only natural that they hold a more impersonal view of projects and their execution.

A project engineering culture is created by those who enorse the application of tools, systems and procedures designed to add structure to the activities which comprise the project.

As is true in any engineering culture, an attempt is made to circumvent the opportunity for humans to make mistakes. It is a culture that often has less patience with customers and end users. They read the PMBOK guide and project management trade journals.

When things go wrong, the project engineering culture is often quick to point out how the basic principles of project management were violated: the charter was not clear, scope statements were shortchanged and not given the attention they deserve, the budget process was inadequate, the schedule was not been enforced, quality processes were too little too late, and reporting systems were weak. The engineering culture, too, is externally focused.

The team culture is represented by the values and beliefs of those who comprise the project team. The teams may include external members from other functional areas of the firm, customers and suppliers.

They are motivated to get the work done, solve problems, change direction, and even try to avoid what they consider the unnecessary effort demanded by project management engineers.

They often cast top management in a suspicious role.

The team culture also represents the more human level of the project, it is where people must work together, face differences of opinion, negotiate these differences, resolve project problems, and contend with constrained budgets and challenging schedules.

The team is where the rubber hits the road!

The concept of cultural misalignment was first suggested by Schein in a paper “The Three Cultures of Management.” When applied to project management his ideas provide another way to think about the challenges that project managers face and why these challenges often place project managers in the middle. Cultural misalignment in project management happens when top-management, Project management engineering and project team cultures have different objectives, use different professional vocabularies, and are closer or farther from the complexity of human interaction. For example, The executive culture focuses on budgets and time, the engineering culture focuses on tools, and the team culture focuses on getting the job done within a complex social environment.

The Columbia Shuttle project provides a good example of these misalignments. Daniel Goldin of NASA created a top-management culture characterized by “Better, Faster and Cheaper.” The engineering culture emphasized quality, safety and attention to detail and the project culture emphasized schedule. Because the misalignment was so severe, and because little attempt was made to resolve these differences, the Columbia shuttle was launched and took six lives with it. In the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report they stated "the NASA organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as the foam."

The very structure of an industry helps to create this misalignment. In hospitals, for example, the team culture combines the sub-cultures of physicians and nurses. They are primarily focused on the health of their patients. Top management is focused on costs and resources, while the engineering culture maintains costly equipment and managers costly facilities whose costs need to be recovered through medical procedures. A project manager assigned to reduce infection rates must interact with all three cultures with each having their own perspective on a possible solution to the problem. Top-management focuses on costs, the operational level focuses on patient health and the engineering level focuses on the change in medical equipment and supplies that will be required.

It is unlikely that these cultures can or will change. From one point of view they are doing exactly what they should do; they impose checks and balances on projects. As a result, project managers are unlikely to be saved from working in the middle.

Perhaps the most important lesson from taking this three-culture view, is that if these cultures are left on their own, conflict becomes a normal part of the project management process and without an understanding of each other’s culture, effective interaction and communication is unlikely to occur.

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