Your organization's beliefs are often invisible but control the results sought and attained. To improve you need to make them visible

What you believe determines what you do and don’t do.

If you believe the world is flat, you won’t go near the horizon (edge).

If you believe that benefits come automatically from the delivery of projects, you will focus on the project and not on the benefits.

Your beliefs direct and colour your actions (or non-actions).

An organization’s beliefs direct and colour its culture. In relation to projects, this culture determines the organization’s project behaviours, approaches and measures of success.

False beliefs

Yet, these beliefs are invisible. They are rarely consciously stated or referred to as ‘beliefs’ and, insofar as they reach the surface, they are referred to as “facts, norms or standards”.

The belief that it is best to “Change the organization to fit the software” has become a de rigour standard in very many project circles.

The belief that “People automatically resist change” has become the standard justification for a whole change management industry.

Executives and Board members, with neither the time nor the context to challenge these statements, are drawn into adopting these false belief systems, even if non-consciously.

In many cases these beliefs are fiercely held across the world and deemed to be supported by evidence on projects – such as the widespread resistance to change by staff.

But how many people ask the question, “Does this ‘evidence’ prove that the beliefs are real, or is this evidence the result of deficient processes driven by erroneous beliefs?”

Reinforcing beliefs

We have found that many beliefs can be self-reinforcing. If you believe people resist change, you’ll plan your change management approaches on the basis of managing the expected resistance to change, and the staff will oblige by resisting the change. QED – the belief is reinforced in practice.

But, what if you believe that resistance to change is created not automatic; that if you define and design your change program effectively you can minimize or even eliminate resistance to change? What do you think would happen then?

There are two key points about beliefs:

1 How you think about, approach, manage and measure projects is determined by your organization’s project beliefs (manifested in its project culture, policies and processes).

2 And, importantly, you cannot achieve any substantial improvement in project results until you change your organization’s belief systems.

Visible beliefs

To change your organization’s belief systems you need to bring them to the conscious mind and make them visible so that people are aware of them. Then you need to assess if they are valid beliefs or merely myths. This assessment requires questioning each belief to see if it has a valid basis.

To surface the belief systems in your organization you need to ask executive management (and project practitioners) what they believe. For example, do Project Sponsors believe they ‘own’ the project or are they merely its ‘guardian’? What do they believe are their true measures of success? Their answers to these two questions tells you a lot about their underlying beliefs in relation to, in this case, project governance.

A benefits management program is a non-starter in an organization where the Sponsors believe that they are only responsible for ensuring the project delivers "on time and on budget". They have the wrong understanding and wrong measure of success.

Similarly, treating every project as a change project will be a non-starter in organizations who see change management as another word for ‘implementation’ and consisting mostly of ‘training and communications’.

Understanding an organization’s belief systems in relation to projects explains why so much time and energy spent trying to improve project performance has failed to have much effect. You can put benefits management processes in place, you can assign accountability for benefits realization, you can set up benefits measurement processes — but if those that need to ensure that the benefits are realized are not focused on benefits, then nothing much will change.

Project and portfolio managers complain about ‘the culture’ and that the executive team ‘don’t understand’. This may be true, but it is not irreversible. Considering the history of projects and their perceived lack of success, it is not surprising to find that executive management and Boards have resorted to adopting commonly held “facts, norms and standards” in their attempts to improve project performance. What they have not done (so we’ve done it for them) is question them to see if these accepted norms (beliefs) are in fact reliable and true. Many are not.

Do you know what myths and beliefs are driving your organization’s approach to projects?


Topics: Value Delivery, Engineered Thinking/Ideas/Innovation, Change Management, Program / Project delivery, Project Governance, Mental Models, Beliefs and Myths

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (May 2011) as "The Power Of Beliefs On Project Results"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections