Some projects get into real trouble — real trouble, not just a speedbump. When that happens, we attribute the trouble to the usual suspects — misconceived plans, poor leadership, insufficient resources, and so on. But one suspect that's often ignored is team culture. Culture can limit how a team responds to trouble at any stage of the unfolding catastrophe. And sadly, even when we make risk plans, we rarely plan for the risks associated with the idiosyncrasies of team culture.
In a series of research papers, books, articles, and Web sites, over a period of five or six decades and still counting, Geert Hofstede developed, tuned, and applied a model of cultures that has predictive value for nations, for businesses large and small, and, as I'm suggesting here, for project teams as they respond to trouble. Hofstede's model, based on his cultural dimensions theory, describes cultures in terms of six dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism/Collectivism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity/Femininity, Long/Short Term Orientation, and Indulgence/Restraint. Of these, three are most relevant for project teams executing high-risk projects: Power Distance, Individualism/Collectivism, and Uncertainty Avoidance.
These cultural A cultural attribute known as
power distance can affect a
team's ability to execute high-
risk projects successfullyattributes suggest the possibility of dramatic differences in a society's — or a company's or a team's — ability to successfully undertake challenging, high-risk projects. I'll address Uncertainty Avoidance and Individualism/Collectivism in future posts. For now, let's examine Hofstede's concept of a culture's Power Distance, and next time discuss how it might affect a team's ability to deal with high-risk projects successfully.
Hofstede defines power distance as "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions…accept and expect that power is distributed unequally." [Hofstede 2011] To measure the Power Distance of a culture, Hofstede developed an index or scale, as defined by the perceptions of the society's members with least power. But for purposes of this exploration, it's sufficient to compare Large Power Distance (Large-PD) teams to Small Power Distance (Small-PD) teams in terms of the way they deal with unequally distributed power.
Below is a selection of attributes of Large-PD and Small-PD teams. It follows a similar list of Hofstede's that applies to societies. I've rephrased the items somewhat to apply to teams and the organizations that charter them.
An intriguing question presents itself: To what extent do these cultural differences with respect to Power Distance affect the success of high-risk projects? An example might provide helpful motivation.
Between 1881 and 1894, Ferdinand de Lesseps, with French backing, undertook one of the more significant attempts to construct a canal in Panama. Having had such great success with his sea-level canal at Suez, de Lesseps was the obvious choice for this project. His concept for Panama was similar to that of Suez — a sea-level canal through the Isthmus of Panama. Though his concept was similar, the climate and terrain were not. Suez is relatively flat and a desert; the Isthmus of Panama is mountainous and rain-drenched.
De Lesseps' effort in Panama ended in failure, bankruptcy, and scandal.
In 1904, after resolving the political issues involving Panama and its sovereignty — by what some say were questionable means — the United States purchased from France for $40 million the construction equipment and progress to date. Under John Findley Wallace, the former chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, work resumed along largely the lines laid out by de Lesseps — a sea-level canal through the mountainous isthmus. When Wallace resigned suddenly in 1905, John Frank Stevens, who had built the Great Northern Railway, running from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, replaced him. Stevens' experience with that effort seemed relevant to the Panama problem, as the route of the Great Northern Railway traversed the Rocky Mountains.
Stevens quickly made changes to both the canal construction process and the infrastructure, which dramatically improved operational effectiveness. Meanwhile, a U.S. design review of the project in 1905 approved the sea-level canal concept of de Lesseps, thereby committing the United States to the design as it then stood.
But by that point, Stevens had experienced the rains that drench the Isthmus every year. He regarded a sea level cut as unworkable because of the enormous volume of the water from those rains. He conceived a new approach that would manage the runoff most effectively, and which would dramatically reduce the amount of rock and earth to be moved. His approach used locks to raise and lower vessels in their traverse over the mountains, and in 1906, he presented his new design to President Roosevelt, who approved it.
Such radical re-thinking of high-risk projects is not uncommon. Because re-thinking often requires questioning the decisions of powerful people, it's reasonable to suppose that Small-PD organizational cultures are better able to re-think their projects when necessary; and the people working on those projects are more likely to take the risk of pointing out the need to re-think when the need arises. Indeed, Hofstede's research suggests that French culture is Large-PD, while the United States culture is Small-PD. Stevens might have been helped — and de Lesseps might have been hindered — by the power distances of their respective cultures.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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