When you leave elephants in the room unchecked, the potential for havoc and rot to set in is palpable and explosive.

There is an innate challenge when cultural forces go to work in an organisation: Getting any traction for turnaround or progress becomes immensely difficult if the forces at play don’t agree or align to strategy.

Last month, we shone a light into the corners of what toxic culture can do to transformation, and without a doubt, left unchecked or failing to bring others along for the journey can undo even the best of intentions with change. Little did we know that the Australian Government’s leadership woes would lead to a spill that would tacitly reinforce the point: that simply changing the guard doesn’t mean you have addressed the challenges of a poor culture.

The adage of culture eating strategy for breakfast is well-known. What is less understood – often from within – is that each organisation has the potential to turn the boat around (if we can be pardoned for the awful pun) if it is willing to acknowledge, understand, and build upon its own Delivery DNA.

What is Delivery DNA?

Most of us understand the concept of DNA: It’s the various genetic components that make each of us who we are. We inherit it from our parents, yet there are often elements that can be unintentionally challenged, corrupted, and damaged through environmental forces we can’t always foresee.

Science shows us that certain combinations of DNA deliver excellence whilst others can create unfortunate complications when the mix delivers unexpected results or challenges that can be the result of environmental factors beyond our control.

In the context of project, change, and transformation teams, the forces exerted on each one’s success are very similar. As we bring individuals together to form teams, each brings with them a set of experiences, motivations, and capabilities to form what will become ‘delivery DNA’.

When a team comes together and gels with the right balance of expertise, experience, and capability, the outcomes can be productive and successful. If, however, a team is forced together and in an environment that is less than ideal, project delivery – no matter how well intended or structured – can often be like death by a thousand cuts as the conditions for success are dramatically reduced by poor or lumpy performance, or worse, by a culture that simply makes progress incredibly difficult.

Canberra: An Unfortunate – but Timely – Example

The upheaval in our Government’s leadership is perhaps one of the most glaring recent examples of what happens when a potentially good Delivery DNA capability is out muscled in favour of a problematic if not outright toxic culture. Yet another ousting of a sitting Prime Minister has put Australia on the global political map as the Capital of the Political Coup.

Let’s make some generous assumptions here: We might suggest that the Federal Liberal party simply hadn’t got its mix of delivery DNA capability right. We could even go so far as to say that the Liberal team is not, in fact, a “team” but an amalgamation of smaller teams with ambitions for different outcomes and priorities.

However, for any team to be successful, there needs to be a common cause for an outcome to be achieved, with each member bringing their best to the collective “we” in a co-ordinated and collaborative way. There is sufficient media coverage for us to not delve into the personalities, leadership styles, polling, and motivation for change. But the ‘spill’ of the leadership and subsequent changes to the ‘team’ resulted in a Parliament being suspended, little work being delivered, a publicly popular leader departing (with no credible explanation being offered), significant collateral damage to many members of the team, and a completely disenfranchised Australian public.

It’s a fairly dramatic turn of events that didn’t resonate as necessary to their constituents. It also hasn’t achieved much in terms of turning around the perception of a fractured and challenged team.

It begs the question: What was ‘success’ supposed to look like for the Liberal party? If leading and governing the country to be the best it can be is the common goal, then the delivery DNA within the team it had couldn’t deliver it as it was. But what did a spill of the leadership really achieve except for an exposure of alleged internal bully tactics, and the internal political goal of retaining power by shifting to a more palatable leadership?

If the exodus of Liberal women saying enough is enough is anything to go by, one has to ask: What was the point of the spill other than to shine a light on how toxic the environment had become?

Not my Circus, not my Monkeys?

Much like the Australian political circus, projects – particularly large and complex ones – can suffer the same fate: Pointless turnover without resolving the underlying cultural challenges.

We often see the leaders of project teams ‘refreshed’ in failing or faltering transformations which serves little to fix the problem. It is almost always a delivery DNA problem that is the root cause of failure i.e. DNA trumps delivery. In-fighting, differing agendas, the friction of permanent vs contingent workers, protectionism, and a raft of other factors all play into project delivery, be it successful or otherwise.

Unless time and effort is spent upfront in team selection and leadership capability, gaining alignment of the common goals, establishing accountability, and managing behaviours within the project, there is always an elevated risk of internal hijacking – or worse, white-anting from inside the team.

Even with the best intentions, when the DNA mix is wrong or the cultural forces are unchecked, teams suffer performance issues. Outsiders looking in can see the disharmony and the undermining behaviours that are playing out and this directly impacts the perception of the teams – and usually not in a positive way.

Leadership is the Carrot and Accountability is the Stick

Any successful attempt at cultivating a robust Delivery DNA starts with the leadership and is measured by accountability.

Setting clear and measurable behaviours of how the team must work together is a critical success enabler. Monitoring and holding people to account whilst also demonstrating the best forms of engagement are essential and when deviations occur, swift but relevant action must happen to ensure that the team isn’t simply aspiring to a checklist.

A great team is a united team that knows the direction it is going in and what it is aiming to achieve, motivated towards a common goal and allowing the shared experiences of all contributing to its achievement. If these elements don’t exist, then your team is already at risk of failing.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...