Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies

A new book looks at the effects of projects' hidden rules.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Many a corporate culture rewards behaviors that are counterproductive, but unless you hold those cultures up to the light of day, it's nearly impossible to change them. The authors of Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior have seen a lot of wrongheaded cultures. Here, they examine a few.

What Is Corporate Culture?

Consider the assertion that the performance of your organization stands on four pillars: proficiency, velocity, agility and corporate culture. Proficiency is your ability to do the right thing and do it right. Velocity is your ability to do it quickly. Agility is your ability to turn on a dime when circumstances change. And corporate culture is the connective tissue that holds everything together.

All of these are important, but the great body of management literature, standards and training materials is focused only on the first. (We include in this critique most of our own books.) All the process brouhaha, the quality movement, initiatives for Six Sigma and CMM/CMMI-level improvement are about proficiency. The other three pillars are treated anecdotally if at all. So a great tome about proficiency might end with the observation, "All the stuff I've been writing about has to be done quickly, of course, and you may need to switch gears along the way. Oh, and by the way, if your corporate culture won't allow change, you're screwed."

Particularly when failure looms, people are quick to blame corporate culture: "The organization just couldn't adapt; it was cultural."

So corporate culture is important. But what exactly is it? You know it when you see it, of course, but could you define it? It clearly has something to do with the larger subject of culture, a word you can look up. Culture is usually defined as "the rituals and ceremonies that define a people," or — we love this one from The New Oxford American Dictionary — "The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively."

Clearly, this is not at all what we're talking about under the heading of corporate culture. We offer the following definition, which makes the subject a bit more tractable and even holds out the possibility of introducing change:

Corporate culture is the set of unwritten rules that are uniformly understood and implicitly obeyed by all members of the organization.

Let's take an example: Your organization may have an unwritten rule that you as manager may petition for a bit more time to deliver a product, but you may do this only once. Going back to the well a second time makes you a wuss. When this rule applies, the culture forces you to withhold the information that a project is in trouble, a clearly unfortunate situation.

As a first step, it's sometimes easier to identify the patterns of behavior that the rules cause, and then go back later to ascertain the underlying rules. So, for example, do any of these patterns seem familiar?

  • Adrenaline Junkies: Organizations where running around with your pants on fire is the only safe way to behave.
  • True Believers: Organizations where a guru sect has dictated One Way and Only One Way to get project work done.
  • Endless Huddle: Organizations in which the right of infinite appeal stops all work dead.
  • Dead Fish: Organizations where a project is headed for disaster and everyone knows it (but people keep their heads down and work as if everything is normal).
  • Happy Clappy Meetings: Organizations where your opinion seems to be encouraged, but it's really only your approval that is necessary.

A corporate culture brainstorm is an effort to identify and name patterns of behavior and then tease out the underlying unwritten rules. When these rules are stated clearly, it may be possible to alter or repeal them. Leaving them unnamed, on the other hand, assures they will haunt you forever.

Adapted from Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior (Dorset House, 2008), by Tom DeMarco, Peter Hruschka, Tim Lister, Steve McMenamin, James Robertson and Suzanne Robertson.

How's your corporate culture? Let us know in the article comments.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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