GPM First


GUEST EDITORIAL: Which planet do you come from?

Adrian Taggart and a team of industry experts investigate the clash of the cultures and try to answer the question: Can function-oriented and task-oriented cultures ever work in harmony?


A Gantt chart versus a daily production rota; critical path analysis versus condition monitoring – the tools we use and the techniques we have perfected are in plain sight and can easily be used to differentiate between those of us who belong to a project management community and those of a non-project environment. But is there not something more fundamental at play? On some basic level, are we not just different types of people? Do project managers come from Mercury and operations managers from Saturn?

After a lifetime working in, and with, organisations that are engaged in the delivery of projects, this is the conclusion I have come to. (Mercury, by the way, is the Roman god of travel and Saturn is the Roman god of agriculture – the original ‘routine operation’.)

These obvious and outward trappings, such as techniques and tools used by the two types of manager, are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Sitting beneath these – under the surface and out of sight, and yet ultimately making us what we are – is a special ensemble of thought patterns, instincts, attitudes, values, accepted norms, customs and language. These are the ‘soft’ characteristics that we conveniently encompass within the expression ‘culture’ and which, to my mind, are the key to explaining the (ultimately) radically different behaviour that operations managers and project managers (PMs) can exhibit. To understand their different actions, we must first appreciate that they represent very different cultures.

In my book, Project Management for Supplier Organizations I look at supplier organisations that provide the goods and services required by the projects of owner organisations. These supplier organisations are subject to very conflicting demands. Consider the following:

  • project teams are temporary groups of individuals brought together to create something that is unique, and their ethos can be summarised as ‘deliver and disband’;
  • manufacturing organisations, by contrast, are permanent institutions that produce (preferably) identical products and whose ethos is all about survival.

Unsurprisingly, these two paradigms lead to very different structures, and the use of very different managerial tools and techniques. A supplier organisation that is servicing a project has a foot in either camp and, while my book explores how the different technical approaches to management can be integrated, it acknowledges something more significant. To achieve harmony it is essential to realise that, with a foot in either camp, supplier organisations stand astride a fault line between two very different cultures.

The emergence and refinement of different cultures over time is not a random accident.

Each different ethnic and regional culture that shares planet Earth has developed as an ideal response to the particular environments and challenges faced by each different group. Different climates, topographies, and flora and fauna all provide different twists on the same basic opportunities and threats faced by all civilizations. Different priorities, practices and skills emerge.  Different cultures soon establish and, left in isolation over time, they become more refined; practices become rituals, stories become myths, ideas become shibboleths.

If everyone is of the same culture, it is simply the norm and there is no need to question it and there is little opportunity for conflict. For the majority of mankind’s existence this has been the case, with each of us exposed to only one culture. Modern transport, however, has condemned that model to history and one of the defining characteristics of the modern era is the number of different national and ethnic cultures to which we are exposed and which co-exist in close proximity. It is this melting pot that provides the contrast and which leads to an examination and a deeper understanding of the different ethnic cultures.

I believe something similar to this has happened in our commercial world. The traditional mono-culture of those big stable factories, coalmines and shipbuilders of yesteryear are increasingly rare. Most modern organisations are complex hybrids – a fact best evidenced by the label of ‘matrix structure’ being applied to so many.

Many readers are familiar with the technical complexities of these structures, most notably the organisational conflict between functional managers and product managers. But what interests me is the overlay of two cultures. To my mind, the real source of conflict in a matrix environment is the juxtaposition of a function-oriented culture of routine operations and a task-oriented culture of the project management community.

So let us address this directly and imagine what each culture may look like and how they may clash. If we pulled the two metaphorical icebergs from the water, what thought patterns, instincts, attitudes, values, accepted norms, customs and language would we find propping up the more familiar tools and techniques?

The opinion pieces that accompany this Guest Editorial are from individuals who have spent their careers carefully treading the fault line between the two cultures. Please click on the links below to read their views – and then please add your own.




  • Jonathan Norman
    By Jonathan Norman

    I once suggested to a very senior and experienced project professional that she might like to join me in elevating project management to the status of a religion. We were certainly thinking along the lines of something pagan (which would play to Adrian's theme) not least because we felt that human sacrifice would be a necessary and frequent part of the requisite ritual.

    Congratulations Adrian on launching our first ever Guest Editorial in such a distinctive and thought-provoking way.

  • Melanie Thompson
    By Melanie Thompson

    If you're interested in following up on the ideas in Adrian's excellent Guest Editorial, Jonathan has put together a useful playlist of further reading:

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