Project Management Institute

Creating an environment for projects to succeed

putting the horse before the cart

Kimberly Johnson, 3M, Business Acumen Learning—The Learning Center


So much of what we have learned over the past 10–20 years within the discipline of project management is how hard it is to implement change within an organization. Historically, we first centered on the tool, then the process, and now the organization with the birth of the concept of a Program/Project Office. In their book, Creating an Environment for Successful Projects, Bob Graham and Randy Englund noted that the concept of the climate or environment is strangely neglected in the literature. Although their book focused on the role of upper management, which they attribute as part and parcel to the climate and environment, this presentation will focus on an assessment tool for the climate of innovation, the Situational Outlook Questionnaire (SOQ). A distinction will be made between culture and climate along with the context in how to go about introducing such an assessment tool within an organization. Examples from 3M’s move toward utilizing the assessment tool will also be shared.

Background of SOQ and Link Between Climate and Organizational Innovation

The Situational Outlook Questionnaire was conceived in the early 1980s from some ideas that came about as part of an employee suggestion system in a manufacturing organization within Sweden. Gordon Ekvall, the original developer of the tool, was working with a colleague to conduct research within Swedish organizations to examine the relationship between people’s perception of the organizational climate and the organizations’ ability to: develop original products and services, expedite delivery of these products to the marketplace, and commercialize original and successful products.

Ekvall and his colleague were able to categorize the innovative, average, and stagnated organizations based on their product performance and the success of the organization as a whole. According to Ekvall, the innovative organizations developed more new products and services and moved them to the marketplace quickly. On the other hand, stagnated organizations were unable to control the development of new products and services effectively. The power behind the SOQ is that the original Swedish measure and the dimensions it measures, has been validated against measures of organizational productivity. Of the innovative organizations examined in the eighties, nine of the 10 are still in business. Of the stagnated organizations, four of the five are no longer in business (the fifth is heavily supported by the government in Sweden).

The SOQ and Its Relationship to Creativity and Change

What do we mean when we say situational outlook for creativity and change? Think about where you were the last time you had a really great idea or breakthrough thought for a challenge or opportunity you were facing. More often than not, we often hear that the ideas come while at someplace other than work and behind your desk. When people begin to explain why their ideas seem to come better in one place or another, they are talking about the climate for creativity.

It is important to distinguish between organizational climate and culture. An organization’s culture concerns the values, beliefs, history, traditions, etc., reflecting the deeper foundations of the organization. The culture is long-standing, deeply rooted, and usually slow to change. The organization’s climate, however, refers to the recurring patterns of behavior exhibited in the day-to-day environment of the organization, as experienced, understood, and interpreted by the individuals within the organization. It is peoples’ perceptions of these behaviors that influence their attitudes at work as well as their levels of performance and resulting productivity. As Dr. Goran Ekvall suggested:

“Climate affects organizational and psychological processes such as communication, problem solving, decision-making, conflict handling, learning and motivation, and thus exerts influence on the efficiency and productivity of the organization, on its ability to innovate, and on the job satisfaction and well-being that its members can enjoy. The individual member is affected by the climate as a whole, by the general psychological atmosphere, which is relatively stable over time. No single separate event produces more lasting influence on behavior and feelings: it is the daily exposure to a particular psychological atmosphere.”

Below are some variables that influence peoples’ perceptions of the working climate:

•  The organizational vision, mission, goals and strategies

•  The amount of available monetary and physical resources

•  The leadership

•  Personnel policies (particularly rewards and promotions)

•  The personalities of the people in the organization

•  The beliefs and values of the organization

•  The organizational structures and systems

•  Concerns for profits and losses

•  Levels of job satisfaction.

All of these variables have an impact on how people view the climate in which they work. However, organizational climate research by Dr. Goran Ekvall suggested that the most influential variable on this list is leadership, affecting up to 65% of people’s perception of the climate.

The SOQ and the Nine Dimensions

The Creative Problem Solving Group-Buffalo (CPS-B) has extended the SOQ tool developed by Dr. Goran Ekvall with an English version. CPS-B utilizes the SOQ to help people develop a better understanding of the perceptions they have of the environment in which they work. The SOQ measures the situational outlook for creativity and change on the following nine dimensions:

Challenge and Involvement—The degree to which members of the organization are involved in its daily operations and long-term goals.

Freedom—The independence in behavior exerted by the people in the organization.

Trust/Openness—The emotional safety in relationships.

Idea Time—The amount of time people can use (and do use) for elaborating new ideas.

Playfulness/Humor—The spontaneity and ease displayed in the workplace.

Conflicts—The presence of personal and emotional tensions (in contrast to idea tensions in the debates dimension) in the organization.

Idea Support—The way new ideas are treated.

Debates—The occurrence of encounters and disagreements between viewpoints, ideas and differing experiences and knowledge.

Risk-Taking—The tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity exposed in the workplace.

Components of the SOQ

The English version of the SOQ has two parts. Part A consists of 50 questions that provide scores on the nine climate dimensions. These scores represent people’s perceptions of the extent to which the behaviors described by the dimensions are present in the climate.

Part B of the questionnaire contains three short-answer questions. These questions provide participants an opportunity to elaborate on their perceptions of the climate. They are asked to identify specific factors in the environment which both support and hinder their innovation and creativity, as well as what they might do to improve the climate for innovation. The verbatims of the participants are typed into a report format and can be used in the presentation of the SOQ’s results. All participants names and references to specific individuals in the setting are removed in the report to protect the individual’s confidentiality. Part B of the SOQ may also be modified to include a larger number of questions based upon your needs.

The SOQ provides one “snapshot” of people’s perceptions of the working climate. These perceptions may be compared to measures of innovation and productivity at the organizational level. It is also possible to compare people’s perceptions of the climate with a variety of other factors including their orientation to creativity; their perceptions of the creative products and services they produce; and the characteristics of the thinking processes they use when identifying and developing innovations.

Deliverables From a Climate Assessment

Utilizing the SOQ to conduct a climate assessment within your organization has a number of possible deliverables:

•  A comprehensive report of findings and key recommendations for improving the situational outlook for creativity and change

•  Personal feedback on the results of the climate assessment provided to participants completing the questionnaire

•  Presentation of climate results and recommendations to internal management team

•  Presentation of organizational climate research findings from SOQ administration

•  A forum for group dialogue and/or group development

•  Presentation of the climate results in relation to the results of other assessments administered

•  Development of a plan with the management team to use the results of the SOQ as a foundation for intervention designed to modify the climate for creativity and change.

3M Case Study

As part of a leading innovation initiative driven by Bill Coyne, Senior Vice President of Research and Development at 3M in early 1998, the SOQ was just one facet of what was to become a Leading Innovation Workshop (or LIW as it would commonly become to be known by within the organization). A key component of this effort was a corporate focus on the Six Activating Points for Innovation, which is held up as the six ingredients for creating “a tradition of innovation.” These Six Activating Points for Innovation are:

•  Vision

•  Foresight

•  Stretch Goals

•  Hire good people and Trust Them

•  Open and Extensive Communication

•  Recognize and Reward Innovation.

The objective of the LIW was to develop actions to improve the leadership of innovation around the Six Activating Points. The audience of the LIW was Division Operating Committees and direct reports consisting of approximately 20–30 people. The proposed outcomes of the LIW effort are as follows:

•  Participants have a clear understanding that they must raise the level of innovation at 3M

•  Enhanced appreciation of 3M’s culture of innovation

•  Participants develop specific action plans to lead innovation

•  To improve personal leadership effectiveness

•  To improve division climate for innovation

•  Participants are committed to take action to more effectively lead innovation

•  Best practices are shared with other 3M divisions who participate in LIW.

The SOQ came into the effort as an assessment tool that would help obtain the raw data needed for the specific action plans to lead innovation. The author became aware of the tool after attending a presentation in 1997 at the annual American Creativity Association convention in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Two presenters from Dupont had shared their efforts of utilizing such a tool within Dupont and their success with the varying business units.

The first client to utilize this tool as part of the LIW effort was obtained through an informal presentation at a technical leadership event on the issue of raising the innovation level within 3M. The LIW team formed in March of 1998 and consisted of three persons from the Technical Development community, which is responsible for the training and development needs of the technical community. The LIW team also employed an outside consultant who had previously done work with 3M Canada on some experiential business training, as well as the guidance and input from a senior level technical management person who had recently retired.

The SOQ tool was administered to the specific business unit in advance of their three-daylong participation in the Leading Innovation Workshop in December 1998. An advance letter from the division general manager along with the assessment tool attached was delivered to the Operating Committee and its direct reports. The statistical breakout function wise from the SOQ was to look at issues of concern within the Laboratory, Manufacturing and Sales/Marketing communities.


The conclusions from this first application of the SOQ tool are considered a failure in that the actual business unit did not follow through on participating in the three-daylong LIW, and those were not able to have their results interpreted and shared with 3M in person as well as to develop action plans to address those results.

In hindsight the following areas are the lessons learned:

•  Communication, communication, communication—a clearer definition on why LIW

•  Better guidance through the process—the need for a communication package by the LIW team

•  Advance preparation by the business unit—develop in advance possible opportunities/issue to address.

All of these lessons learned came about when the key developers of the LIW Team and key members of the business unit came together approximately one month after cancellation of the LIW to learn and understand what we could have done differently.

A key particular learning for the author is to more rigorously engage in a document supplied by CPS-B titled “What would you want to know in advance?” and is a type of client intake form. Since this time two other business units have been approached with interest in utilizing the SOQ assessment tool only without the entire LIW effort. Neither of them has followed through once the initial presentation on the tool and its use within the organization, each with varying reasons.

More recently, however, one particular business unit has learned of the SOQ through some ongoing attendance at creativity and innovation events in house at 3M, and actually called the author up explaining their need for such a tool within their organization. The use of the assessment tool has been approved by the key stakeholders and the client intake form has been utilized as well They are currently in the process of administering the assessment tool to the entire business unit. A key learning here for the author is “go where the energy is!”


Ekvall, G. (1998). The situational outlook questionnaire, CPS-B Presentation Notes.

Graham, Robert J., & Englund, Randall L. (1997). Creating an environment for successful projects. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, Kimberly A. (1998). Sponsorship, teams and the project office. Proceedings of PMI’s Seminars & Symposium.

Johnson, Kimberly A. (1996). Influencing corporate culture through grass roots project management. Proceedings of PMI’s Seminars & Symposium.

Prather, Charles W., & Gundry, Lisa K. (1995). Blueprints for innovation. American Management Organization.

Tanner, David. (1997). Total creativity in business and industry. Advanced Practical Thinking.

Shenhar, Aaron. (1998).Strategic project leadership for business success. 3M Technical Development Course Materials.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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