Thursday, 12 May 2016 12:20

Success vs Culture

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Success vs Culture

The other day a Latvian student contacted me for my views the connection between culture and success criteria—an important and intriguing topic. After working in Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Israel, United States, and Canada, I wear many scars of both blatant and subtle cultural violations. I also know that within a culture one person's success is often another person's failure. So, after dispelling concerns about clicking on some random email link, I completed her survey (please feel free to take it yourself). In the process, I struck up a friendship with the student, Kristine Briežkalne, who is studying at Riga International School of Economics and Business Administration . She has some interesting views and presented me with a Venn diagram showing four frames to a project (business, client, project management, and growth perspectives) and how they intersected. As the diagram is part of her Master's thesis, I will let you ponder the how to label the overlapping areas (an eye-opening exercise).

Ignoring Culture Begets Failure

Frame Value
  • Usability
  • Low cost
  • New enabling functions
  • No need to get involved
Delivery Organization
  • Referrals and return business
  • Profit or margin
Project Team
  • Elegance/simplicity of solution
  • Working with new technology
Table 1: Value by Frame

Anyone running an international project will be in for a nasty surprise if they ignore culture and expect their project to succeed. Will a US-based delivery team actually be able to claim success in an Israeli delivery if they do not forfeit scope on a regular basis? Will they succeed in Asia if the client loses face at any point? It is doubtful. Understanding success criteria has to be done very early on, long before the project starts. You can deliver your definition of value (much different then scope, schedule, and budget) to all parties and never get asked back to do another project. Or, maybe your culture does not care about repeat customers.

It Is All About Value

We need to get back to the basics of describing success. Too many companies define it in terms of scope, schedule, and budget. Yet most customers, regardless of culture, say that if a project delivers something they will not use, it is a failure (regardless of whether it met the scope, schedule, and budget). Granted, some cultures need to save-face and say the project was a success whether or not they like it. Hence, the challenge is determining the value in the eyes of those who have the most clout.

I am steadfast in the belief that value is the measure of success. That, however, just creates one more definition to resolve—value. I am not arguing semantics. Focusing on value, rather than success, creates a different mindset. People include intangibles when they describe value. They realize the value for the delivery organization is different than value for the customer. Cost is a huge component of customer value and margin for the delivery group. So is usability and referenciblity, respectively. Some cultures value low cost, others saving face, some argue in more scope, others look to efficiency for value. It depends on the frame you view it through (see Table 1).

The Wood Stove

Recently my wife and I bought a thermocouple-driven fan for our wood burning stove. It was expensive as fans go at about $110 (USD). (Walmart sells personal fans, which are close to the same size, for about 10% of that cost.) I would not trade it for boxes of Wally World other fans. It sits atop of the stove silently recirculating hot air. Would others see the value? A few people would. Would people question me paying that much for a fan? Yes… but a little less after they sat in front of the stove on a cold winter night. I am way over budget on the fan, but I am happy because I see value.


Culture has a huge impact on success. They questions are:

  • How much relative to other attributes?
  • What cultures value which items?
  • How do you balance the triple constraints with value?
  • how do we handle micro-cultural issues (by department or position)?

I suggest you take Kristine's survey, help her out, and see what her results are. Or, you can add a comment below.

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