Corporate Culture – Is It Important, and What Role Does it Have in Creating a Successful Project? Blog Written By: Matthew Pritchard, Team Leader, CLP.
The Chars Livelihoods Programme is coming to an end very soon. It’s been going for 11 years this April, and March 2016 will be the final month of its technical activities.
As one of our close-out activities, the CLP team and DFID have been putting a lot of effort into learning lessons from CLP’s long implementation experience.
One of the questions that has been on my mind during this process is: what is it that drives some projects towards success, while others don’t seem able to find the route? Is it just about the right technical approaches; hiring appropriately skilled staff; paying them properly; getting the project management basics right; and so on – or is there something more?
It seems to me that there is indeed a glue that binds all the ‘hard elements’ together: ‘corporate culture’; the values, principles, feelings, practices and ‘stuff that happens and is talked about’ which informs subtly, but importantly, how the project ends up performing.
In CLP, I believe that a successful corporate culture has been created over the last 11 years, one that sets high standards, values hard work and honesty, and isn’t scared to face challenges head-on and learn from them.
But how has this come about?
A starting point is the policies, procedures and standards mandated by the stakeholders: the donors, DFID and DFAT; Maxwell Stamp PLC; the Government of Bangladesh (GoB). Some of these are written into the programme’s contract and they have prescribed outputs – they must be delivered, and this is contractually enforceable. Examples include the ‘zero tolerance to corruption’ policy, as well as the requirement to deliver high-quality monitoring and evaluation (M&E) reports.
The policies and approaches are actively monitored and overseen by senior management – from the donors, to the GoB, to the Programme team, and also to the senior managers of Maxwell Stamp PLC. This high-level oversight reduces the ‘wriggle room’ for the right approaches to be ignored, or implemented to low standards.
But this alone isn’t enough. There also needs to be a strong commitment to such policies, and to high ethical and technical standards, from the individuals in the team as well. All policies are implemented by people; so the commitment comes from the personalities, characters, experience and expectations of the individuals involved.
This has certainly played out in CLP. The first phase of CLP (2004 to 2010) went through a radical shake-up after the first year or so of implementation. It was clear that major aspects of the original design were not delivering results; the programme was close to being deemed a ‘failure’ and shut down.
I asked Roland Hodson, the Team Leader of CLP during its first phase from 2004 to 2009, about this, and he commented: “Through good fortune and out of the initial crisis in the CLP, an opportunity arose to lay the foundation for a more truth-telling, responsibility-taking and learning culture. We wanted an organisation that if you worked hard, did your best and told the truth, mistakes and failures were seen as part of the important learning process and to be celebrated.”
CLP was fortunate that key people within the donor – DFID, at the time – were prepared to support efforts to set high standards and learn lessons, rather than simply punish anything deemed “failure.”
It meant that managers could start to show that the gap between words and deeds – i.e. what is supposed to happen vs. what actually does happen – was minimal. DFID and the Government of Bangladesh have formal policies about monitoring, evaluation, lesson-learning, modification where necessary, and constantly aiming for good results. For CLP1, these were actively implemented in the most practical way possible: the project was substantially re-designed and modified to stand a better chance of success, based on lessons learned from the first months of (apparent) failure. This indicates that there was strong political will on the part of the senior team to implement the expected policies and procedures, and implement them to high standards. This is a critical aspect of setting good corporate culture.
Lack of will has, in my experience of various projects and organisations, been instrumental in producing or failing to challenge negative aspects of corporate culture. But where does this political will come from? It’s fine to have the approaches and policies; and the oversight; but how can you ensure you get the commitment to implement these properly on the ground?
It’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Clearly, getting the ‘right’ staff is paramount. This means having good recruitment processes to get quality people in the first place. However, as the management literature shows, there are a baffling array of ways you can go about this. Often, recruitment seems as much a process of luck as of science or judgement.
So it’s also critical that the next step in the process is also given attention: good performance management processes that are fairly and effectively implemented. If someone doesn’t come up to the standards expected, they need to be told and to get appropriate support. If they continue to demonstrate inadequate performance, they need to be replaced by someone that will perform.
On CLP, this commitment to high standards and good staff has been regularly tested. CLP1 saw the departure of several staff that had not been performing. According to Mr Hodson, “When national staff and other international staff saw that the project was able to actually live up to its declared values even to the point of terminating [people‘s contracts], then there was a chance to begin to build culture around performance and truth telling. If there are no penalties for not adhering to high standards, a good organisational culture has no chance to develop.”
But it’s not just about the sanctions and the discipline – there needs to be a commitment to fair processes. Today, CLP ensures that both its investigations and performance management processes adhere to best practice and are as transparent as possible, so people can see that the programme lives up to its principles.
Another important step is to value staff and show them that good performance is rewarded. CLP regularly promotes internal candidates that have performed well. This means that staff move up the ranks, gaining valuable experience, while also letting everyone know that merit is a principle that the project takes seriously.
This highlights another important aspect of good corporate culture: a commitment to transparency and evidence-based decision-making.
An example comes from the CLP’s approach to its “zero tolerance to corruption” policy. Bangladesh represents a challenging environment in this respect. Corrupt practices are widespread and endemic, so the threat that corruption could infect the programme is ever-present. Thus the ‘zero tolerance’ policy must be implemented without exception.
In CLP’s case, again there has been alignment between words and deeds. From early 2007, CLP started running ‘customer satisfaction surveys’ to gauge the extent of potential corruption or malpractice. What’s more, the results were published on the website: click here for the first report from Feb 2007; and here for a follow-up report in 2008. This commitment to both investigating and transparently reporting on this sensitive topic continues.
Good evidence-based decision-making revolves around having solid monitoring and evaluation (M&E) structures and processes in place, and then using them. Many projects I’ve known have taken a half-hearted approach to M&E. Under-funded and often over-looked, M&E reports become a tick-box chore. Rarely are they analysed; even rarer is any change in project direction or approach as a result.
On CLP, one of the strongest indicators of a positive corporate culture has been the highly effective integration of the Innovation, Monitoring, Learning and Communications Division into the overall management of the programme. The IMLC is headed by a Director; and it is resourced to conduct good surveys and analysis. The results and recommendations are regularly used to make substantial modifications to approaches or policies.
Two brief examples: during 2012 IMLC data showed that many core participants were not meeting our ‘graduation’ criteria (click here for more details on CLP’s approach to graduation and its results) because of lack of access to improved water supplies (IWS). As a result, CLP changed its water policies, moving from a community-wide focus to one that ensured each participant got access to an IWS.
Also, the Markets M&E system showed that the Fodder project was succeeding, just not in the way we’d expected. As a result, we modified our approach by amalgamating the Meat and Fodder projects to both save money but also protect the very positive progress already made.
This is where it cycles back to a point made at the beginning: CLP’s head contract incorporates the requirement to conduct high-quality, evidence-based research, grounding the M&E in a contractually-enforceable reality.
A final point to make about another aspect of this corporate culture ‘glue’ that binds the Programme’s bricks together: the stories that are told. What do newcomers first hear about the Programme when they arrive?
These stories are both a result of and an influence over the dominant corporate culture. When I arrived in June 2013, I was very struck by the fact that the stories senior managers told me revolved heavily around learning, transparency, looking squarely at the evidence and doing what was necessary to achieve the right results. The stories were also of the times that staff and organisations did not come up to scratch: they were moved on; their contracts were terminated; the zero tolerance policy was real and not to be compromised.
Very soon, I realised that the Programme walked the talk; these stories let me know that the corporate culture was real and I was expected to fit in. If not, it was pretty clear I’d have to leave. But thankfully, it’s a corporate culture that entirely fits my own principles, so I’m pleased and proud to be part of it.
It also convinced me that corporate culture is more than just management lip-flapping. It’s a real and important part of any project or organisation.
To any CEO or Team Leader – and indeed, to any member of the team – I’d say: ignore corporate culture at your peril. If you get it wrong, you could doom your efforts to failure. But get it right, and it could be your pathway to success.
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