Culture, Communication, and Leadership for Projects in Dynamic Environments

Simon Collyer, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Rapid change is an accelerating problem for projects in most industries. This article presents findings from a grounded theory study identifying project management approaches for mitigating rapid change in the course of a project. These results relate to culture, communication, and leadership and are complimentary to results previously presented on planning and control for dynamic environments. The study employed 37 in-depth interviews and three focus groups held with practitioners across ten industries (defense, community development, construction, technology, pharmaceutical, film production, scientific startups, venture capital, space, and research). Themes emerged relating to: a vision led, egalitarian, goal-orientated culture supporting experimentation; timely and efficient communication; and flexible leadership with rapid decision making. The findings address a gap in the project management literature and may be useful to practitioners.

KEYWORDS: uncertainty; ambiguity; change; dynamism


The pace of change is accelerating, driven by globalization, technology, and deregulation (Graetz, Rimmer, Lawrence, & Smith, 2006). Our unfolding reality is increasingly uncertain, ever changing, and unpredictable. As the world moves to an ever faster clock cycle, so must our management techniques change to keep pace (Boyd, 1996; Hodgson & White, 2003). Rapid change is established as an increasing threat to projects across all industries and remains a key unresolved project management issue (CSIRO, 2007; Dodgson, 2004; Gray & Larson, 2003; Jones, 2004a; Perrino & Tipping, 1991; Petit & Hobbs, 2012; Rothwell & Zegveld, 1985; Sugden, 2001). Traditional approaches, orientated around tight process control, require augmentation to meet this threat (Ashton, Johnson, & Cook, 1990; Collyer, Warren, Hemsley, & Stevens, 2013; Koskela & Howell, 2002; Sachs & Meditz, 1979, p. 1081; Sugden, 2001; Williams, 2004). The fundamental problem in dynamic environments is that events can arise at a higher rate than is practical to re-plan (Ashton et al., 1990; Sachs & Meditz, 1979; Sugden, 2001; Williams, 2004). New unknowns arise rapidly during the execution of the project. In Brown and Eisenhardt's (1997) study of organizations challenged by continuous change, the authors noted how strategies considered reasonable and effective in incrementally changing environments actually caused failures in fast moving environments. In the words of Lenfle and Loch:

Project management has an opportunity to regain the central place it should never have lost in the management of strategic initiatives, innovation, and change, but this will require adding more flexible methods to the available toolkit (Lenfle & Loch, 2010, p. 33).

The study presented here sought to identify practitioner approaches for managing culture, communication, and leadership in environments particularly challenged by rapid change and to generate propositions for later testing. The major results from the study were practical and theoretical insights into how practitioners optimize culture, communication, and leadership to better deal with the increasing challenge of dynamism.

Literature Review

In this project management context, dynamism is taken to be a dimension of a project that represents the extent to which the project is influenced by rapid changes in the environment in which it is conducted. Changes can occur within the project, within the organization, and outside the organization, and may include technology, goals, regulations, and many other influences in a rapidly changing business environment. A more complete definition of dynamism is provided by Collyer and Warren (2009). Dynamism is clearly a linear dimension, not binary, and one of many project dimensions that may be taken into account when selecting a project management approach. The term environment is taken to mean the project environment, including such things as the industry, resources, processes, techniques, and so forth. The term approach is taken to mean the mix of project management techniques applied. The term culture is taken to mean the set of shared values and norms that control organizational members' interactions with each other and people outside the organization (George & Jones, 2002).

The key challenge of dynamism is the rapid generation of new unknowns that require exploration and resolution. A culture that is risk-averse can punish experimentation, which in turn inhibits the discovery of solutions to new unknowns (Argyris, 1999; Senge, Kleiner, Ross, Roth, & Smith, 1999). Previous research suggests that dynamic environments may therefore benefit from a level of controlled experimentation and the elimination of “dead ends,” a tolerance for failure, and the sharing of rewards (De Meyer, Loch, & Pich, 2002; Harvard Business School Press Books, 2001; Mayer, 2007b). A culture that supports the learning approach to project management may help the project team explore uncertain environments (Pich, Loch, & De Meyer, 2002). Walker and Shen (2002, p. 35), for example, found new product development projects benefit from a culture that “supports flexibility by valuing and encouraging opinion diversity,” and encourages risk, “provided that lessons are learned from mistakes and near misses as well as from success.” Organizations are increasingly adopting iterative approaches employing collaborative leadership inside a more flexible organic culture (Salameh, 2014; Serrador & Pinto, 2015). Indications from a number of studies suggest dynamic environments may benefit from an egalitarian culture with a flat management hierarchy (Donaldson & Hilmer, 1998; Hauck, Walker, Hampson, & Peters, 2004; Jones, 2004b; Marschan, Welch, & Welch, 1996b; Mayer, 2007a; Mills, 2007; Porter & Siegel, 1965). Innovation management, for instance, has benefited from organic and informal approaches, supplementing formal management (Burns & Stalker, 1961; George & Jones, 2002, pp. 552, 563; Maidique & Hayes, 1985, p. 48; Shenhar, 2001). In fact, Serrador and Pinto (2015) reported that for high technology, healthcare, and professional services industries, the greater the agile/iterative approach reported, the higher the reported project success. Greenberg and Baron (2003) found that many technology organizations have a communal culture with high sociability and solidarity and that they share and communicate well.

Regarding communication in a dynamic environment, “the value of information is directly related to timeliness” (Laufer, 1997, p. 476). Godé and Lebraty (2015) highlighted the importance of rapid feedback in environments characterized by high levels of change and uncertainty. Some projects will simply fail with slow decision-making processes. Decision lag can result in a product that is out of date with a changed environment. Hauck et al. (2004) argued, “traditional, hierarchical organizational structures do not promote the type of communication among equals necessary to succeed in a collaborative environment” (p. 147). Some studies have confirmed the importance of face-to-face communication in uncertain environments, as a fast and effective way to clarify ambiguous issues and reach agreement (Daft & Lengel, 1986; Jones, Saunders, & McLeod, 1994). Brown and Eisenhardt's (1997) study of multi-product innovation in six organizations challenged by continuous change suggested value in: extensive communication; design freedom; a structure that allows change without chaos; and low cost probes and experimentation (as more effective than planning or reacting).

Leaders in dynamic environments need to manage ambiguity and uncertainty (Hodgson & White, 2003). Studies indicate leaders might benefit from being flexible and able to trade off, after identifying problems that are not readily apparent (Shenhar, 2001; Shenhar & Wideman, 2000). Snowden and Boone (2007) gave an excellent account of leadership techniques for complicated, complex, and chaotic environments, based on their Cynefin model. For complicated environments, Snowden (2005) recommended a “sense-analyze-respond” decision model, based on an oligarchic–consensual management approach. For complex environments, probing, experiments, and higher levels of communication were found to be helpful (Snowden & Boone, 2007). Increasing rates of change are transforming the role of senior management from purely operational to a combination of project and change management, with change management growing in importance as organizations are being transformed by the rapid pace of technology (Hornstein, 2015).

Turner (1999) recognized how problems with traditional project management gave rise to more emergent management methodologies, often identified by words such as “lean” or “agile,” and these approaches would seem to be the most obvious contenders for use in a dynamic environment. While there is evidence that agile techniques are useful in industries other than software development (Conforto, Salum, Amaral, da Silva, & de Almeida, 2014; Serrador & Pinto, 2015), agile is defined by the needs of the software industry (Fowler & Highsmith, 2001) as opposed to the challenges of a specific management dimension, making it more difficult to know when to apply agile to other situations. There isn't a one-to-one relationship between agile and dynamism. The software development industry is challenged by more than the dimension of rapid change, and a study of dynamism uncovers more techniques than can be offered by the software industry alone. Although agile is useful for informing a study on dynamism, it is not sufficient. This study begins with a single clear dimension that causes a problem and then looks for empirical evidence of different solutions to this problem applied in practice.

While some studies reveal results related to the problem of rapid change, relatively few address it directly. The strategies for dealing with planning and control in dynamic environments have been explored by Collyer et al. (2013). This study, therefore, sought to fill a gap in the project management literature, specifically regarding the challenge of dynamism for culture, communication, and leadership. Project managers across a range of industries encountering dynamism were examined to identify: (1) how they adjust culture, communication, and leadership style; (2) whether certain cultures, communication styles, or leadership styles are perceived to be advantageous when dealing with dynamic projects; and (3) new practical coping strategies to achieve management optimization in those environments.


Research Design

Grounded theory was the methodology selected as most suitable for addressing the aims of this research. Grounded theory using in-depth interviews and focus groups was selected for three primary reasons: (1) dynamism's relationship with culture communication and leadership in project management is an area about which little is known; (2) the researchers were seeking an in-depth understanding of the perspectives of project managers in actual environments, and qualitative research methods are most suited to understanding the complexity of human behavior and perceptions in naturalistic environments (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994); and (3) it was important that the findings contributed to an emerging theory that was built from within the data rather than reflect previously held positions or theories that historically have not considered the impact of change. The main premise of the grounded theory methodology is that new theories should be developed from research grounded in data, rather than deduced from existing theories and then tested (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). As Charmaz (2006) describes, grounded theory is a method focused on:

creating conceptual frameworks or theories through building inductive analysis from the data. Hence, the analytic categories are directly ‘grounded’ in the data. This method favors analysis over description, fresh categories over preconceived ideas and extant theories, and systematically focused sequential data collection over large initial samples (Charmaz, 2006, p. 187)

Grounded theory can uncover broader and sometimes new realities, starting with a narrow set of cases, before moving to testing what otherwise may be a narrow theoretical reality, across a broad set of cases. As pointed out by Charmaz (2006), all researchers have a history, and a literature review is necessary to locate the study within the relevant literatures, justify the study, and, most importantly, to build on emerging theory. As argued by Glaser and Holton, the literature review can be used as another source of data to be integrated into the constant comparative analysis (Glaser & Holton, 2004). In this study, a literature review was included and the stance of “theoretical agnosticism” adopted as a means to reduce contamination (Henwood & Pidgeon, 2003). Focus groups were employed to extend on the results of the interviews and use them to generate new ideas and more accurate insights (Flick, 2006; Krueger, 1994; Morgan, 1996) and to provide a level of triangulation. The study was designed based on traditional focus group research methods as defined by Patton (2005). Patton defined a focus group interview as being one with a small group (of six to eight people) on a specific topic lasting for one-half to two hours (2005).


Interview participant sampling was aimed at theory construction, not population representativeness (Charmaz, 2006). Starting with a combination of stratified sampling (across industries) and convenience sampling, the study employed snowballing theoretical sampling to explore particular ideas in more depth. The stratified spread of participants across diverse industries sought to collect a wide range of approaches to managing dynamic environments, along with commonalities. In total, 31 project managers were recruited from 10 different industries, resulting in 37 interviews and three focus groups. Three focus groups with 16 project managers followed the interviews in order to verify and expand upon the findings from the interviews. Purposeful sampling was employed to target senior practitioners or process designers who were challenged by dynamism and had reasonable experience in long-lasting companies. Only participants who perceived they were significantly challenged by the dimension of dynamism were included in the study. Each participant's label, description, and role are presented in Table 1.

For the focus groups, purposeful sampling was employed to identify participants who were experienced practitioners or process designers with at least 10 years of experience from organizations in operation for at least 10 years. For selection, they needed to be able to provide examples of how they were being challenged by a strong dimension of dynamism in projects. Three focus groups were conducted using a total of 16 practitioners, as described in Tables 2 and 3. Three focus groups were run to allow triangulation of results and to mitigate the effects of face-to-face versus online. The three groups were undertaken in this way:

  • One international face-to-face focus group in Washington, D.C., United States.
  • One local face-to-face focus group in Brisbane, Australia
  • One international online focus group using a web conferencing application.
Label Industry Example Project and Role
Const1-2 Construction 1. Planning engineer for joint venture road tunnel construction.
2. Project office manager for green power generation.
Space1 Aerospace 1. Project management leader for government space agency.
Aid1-3 International Community Development 1. Post conflict reconstruction project manager for international aid agency.
2. Community development project manager for aid agency in Middle East
3. International post disaster recovery aid project manager.
Pharm1-2 Pharmaceutical 1-2. Managing programs for drug development.
DefSvc1-3 Defense 1. Military commander of regional assistance project (Solomon Islands).
2. Military commander of post conflict regional assistance project (Timor).
3. Military procurement program management—including fighter jets, and warships.
Film1-3 Film Production 1. Feature film direction.
2. Documentary film production.
3. Feature film production and direction
Startup1-2 Startup in Science/Technology 1. New power storage technology development.
2. New power generation technology development.
VentCap1 Venture Capital 1. Managing a program or venture capital projects.
Research1-2 Research 1. Managing research projects.
ITSvc1-12 Information Technology 1-12. Information technology projects including software, data centers, and infrastructure.
Participants n=31; Interviews n=37; Face to Face n=22; Via Email n=14; Via Telephone n=1; Second Interviews n=6

Table 1: Interview participant profiles.

Table 3 lists the roles and industries of the focus group participants. Quotes from focus group participants will be identified by their industry or by the label “FG.”

Data Collection Procedure

In keeping with grounded theory methodology, information was gathered from a variety of sources to triangulate findings and to inform the developing theory on management for dynamic environments (Singleton & Straights, 2005). In-depth semi-structured interviews and focus groups were employed to explore, clarify, and confirm participants' views on challenges and strategies to form new ideas (Creswell, 2003; Flick, 2006). As Boyce and Neale explained (2006) in-depth interviews: (1) provide more detailed information than, for example, a survey; (2) provide a more relaxed, frank, and open atmosphere; (3) are time intensive; (4) require awareness of bias when the participant is selling an agenda; and (5) are not generalizable due to small sample sizes. Participants were asked to illustrate their responses with examples and discuss their experiences and identify new approaches they use or believe could be useful when dealing with dynamism in their project environments. Field notes were used to inform the findings and the developing theory on project dynamism (Singleton & Straights, 2005).

Code Focus Group Type Technique #Participants Date and Location
FG1 International Face-to-face   4 June 2010
Washington, D.C., United States
FG2 National Face-to-face   7 June 2011
Brisbane, Australia
FG3 International Online   5 July 2011
Online convened from Brisbane, Australia

Table 2: Focus group type, technique, number of participants, and location.

Three focus groups were conducted to triangulate results. The beneficial effects of the focus groups included group interaction; widened range of responses; idea snowballing; new interpretations; deeper insights; cross verification of plausibility; and improving the quality theory (Catterall & Maclaran, 1997; Morgan, 1998). The results of the previously held in-depth interviews were also used to guide discussion and gain more accurate insights and as examples to prompt new ideas. All focus groups were digitally audio-recorded; throughout the discussions, the researcher checked and clarified meanings with the participants in order to achieve a shared understanding of the issues (Riessman, 1993).

Label Industry Example Project and Role Focus Group
PartA-FG1 Aerospace Product development for a space launch company FG1
PartB-FG1 R&D R&D project to develop new ways of doing air-conditioning FG1
PartC-FG1 Generic Author of project management guide for international aid projects FG1
PartD-FG1 Healthcare Software development of new healthcare system FG1
PartG-FG2 IT - Generic Software development in IT FG2
PartH-FG2 IT - Software Software development in IT FG2
PartI-FG2 IT - Networks Adoption of new type of email service FG2
PartJ-FG2 IT - Generic Software development in IT FG2
PartK-FG2 Software Development iPhone and Android app development FG2
PartL-FG2 IT Networks Rapid large-scale wireless network rollout FG2
PartM-FG2 ICT Rapid HR system deployment FG2
PartO-FG3 Engineering New traffic control system deployment FG3
PartP-FG3 Humanitarian Aid Post-conflict reconciliation project FG3
PartQ-FG3 Post Conflict Reconstruction Post-conflict reconstruction project FG3
PartR-FG3 Humanitarian Aid Disaster aid project FG3
PartS-FG3 Aerospace New space vehicle development FG3

Table 3: Focus group participant descriptions.

Data Analysis

Using the constant comparative method, the data were analyzed as they were being collected, allowing the researcher to draw interpretations and refine concepts from one participant to the next (Alvesson & Karreman, 2007; Creswell, 2003; Taylor & Bogdan, 1998; Yin, 2003). All digitally recorded face-to-face interviews and focus groups were transcribed verbatim, with identifying information deleted or changed, and all written email responses were de-identified and inserted into text documents. Participants were sent written summaries of their interviews with an invitation to amend or add to the information. The unit of analysis was the project management approach used by organizations conducting project management in dynamic environments. Transcripts were read and reread, and the researchers discussed the data to identify themes and explore alternative interpretations before a consensus was achieved (Alvesson & Karreman, 2007; Flick, 2006). The author coded according to the themes, which were then organized into broader categories of meaning as they emerged (Creswell, 2003). An example is provided in Figure 1, with initial descriptive codes identified. Participants were sent written summaries with an invitation to make amendments or additions. This procedure enabled the researchers to verify that their identification of themes was an accurate representation of the participants' intended meaning (Creswell, 2003).

Example of focus group thematic analysis

Figure 1: Example of focus group thematic analysis.


After open coding, behaviors were grouped into a reduced set of themes categorized under culture, communication, and leadership as shown in Tables 4, 5, and 6.

The purpose of the next section is to provide illustrations of themes using raw data extracts from the transcripts. Extracts are presented under the headings: Cultural Styles for Dynamic Environments, Communication Styles for Dynamic Environments, Leadership and Decision Making for Dynamic Environments.

Theme Sub Themes
Egalitarian, goal-orientated culture that supports experimentation Having the smallest possible team with a flat hierarchy;
Customized for requirements;
Organic, flexible, adaptive, and collaborative;
Experimentation valued for its ability to eliminate dead ends;
Focused on goals, not process;
Culture supported by stakeholders.

Table 4: Themes for effective culture in dynamic environments.

Theme Sub Themes
More timely and efficient communication Increased emphasis on fast, timely, and succinct communication over slow, thorough communication;
Adjust communication rates according to needs;
Use rapid communication during periods of rapid change;
Timeliness over thoroughness;
Formalize direct communication channels that bypass organizational levels, if required;
Co-locate staff where they collaborate significantly to aid more rapid communication.

Table 5: Themes for effective communication in dynamic environments.

Theme Sub Themes
Flexible leadership with rapid decision making Leader collaborates with smallest possible team;
Team is provided with a good understanding of the intent;
Highly adaptable;
Leader enables rapid decision making by: (1) delegating decisions and (2) making quick reasonable decisions;
Decision delegation is achieved by communicating the vision (intent);
Decision making is made with a focus on speed and reasonableness considering the consequences of a delay;
Quick, reasonable decisions are facilitated by: (1) high levels of situational awareness (rapid constant data collection) and (2) pre-planned responses;
Cancelled experiments are rewarded as useful input;
Need for three key skills: (1) organizing, (2) understanding the problem, and (3) understanding the solution.

Table 6: Themes for effective leadership in dynamic environments.

Cultural Styles for Dynamic Environments

The cultural style themes emanating from the interviews were reinforced and refined in the focus groups. The benefit of a flat hierarchy was a theme illustrated by Startup1: “Our organization is flat … we only have 10 staff” and Startup2: “Decisions do not have to go up through committees … not a tall structure.” FG2 concluded that “a tall hierarchy would not adapt quickly enough to achieve the objectives. The opportunity gets missed.” (PartG-FG2) The consensus was to use a relatively flat project team structure, linking the hands-on staff to decision makers, reinforced with comments like “tall hierarchies are a big problem … hoarding decisions at the top” (PartC-FG). FG1 is illustrated as follows:

A tall hierarchy that over controls things prevents you from adapting to change in time. If you work in an environment that is totally hierarchical and it doesn&%x0027;t allow for that [adapting to change] then you can&%x0027;t work in a dynamic environment, and I have worked in organizations like that and I have left (PartC-FG1).

FG2 settled on the concept that an “enabling factor [for dynamic environments] doesn&%x0027;t have a huge amount of middle management” (PartH-FG2). They suggested lots of multi-skilled teams at the hands-on level. A collaborative culture was reinforced with comments like: “we see people going above and beyond because they are in that collaborative situation” (PartH-FG2).

The benefits of flexibility in a dynamic environment emerged as a common theme, as explained by one participant:

We give flexibility for people to explore and determine where and when they explore, as long as there is justification it is contributing to the overall objective. We put a lot of effort into a culture of flexibility and taking responsibility (Startup1).

To give another example, Pharm2 reported: “we promote initiative on the ground; allow flexibility to take advantage of fleeting moments; allow flexibility with key higher level objectives in mind. [We] pushed the line constantly that staff had to embrace change.”

Another interesting illustration was of the importance of a culture with the correct levels of experimentation:

Many of the people in drug development companies are scientists and so they realize that an unsuccessful experiment can teach as many lessons as a successful one. However … shareholders do not always take a similar view. So there is a certain tension within the drug development industry between the reality of what is ultimately an exploratory, scientific process, and the business need for certainty around commercial returns (Pharm2)

Communication Styles for Dynamic Environments

While none of the interview participants reported abandoning formal communication approaches, participants reported facilitating greater numbers of informal interactions while maintaining a formal communication core of meetings and reports. Themes emerging around communication styles centered on the importance of timeliness. Pharm2 reported how they “did not wait for meetings.” Ventcap1 gave a good illustration of the theme with:

Most of our communication internally within the fund management team is fast and informal and included email, drop-ins in offices and round the ‘water cooler’ discussions, face-to-face meetings called at short notice. Also, most communication with our portfolio companies and investees is fast and informal, exchanged between the various team members to adjust to the myriad of rapid changes.

Regular informal communications were thought to increase the collective consciousness of issues. Participants also reported adjusting communication styles to meet needs. One illustration was how a defense participant described their mix of formal and informal communication:

Usually, communication is only at critical milestones, but when there is contact with the enemy, the radio operator immediately gets on the radio and starts describing every detail of battle. This gets the information out quickly to those who might need to add assistance (DefSvc1).

So, at the points of most rapid change or risk they significantly increase the rate and quantity of communication in order to facilitate timely responses. For instance, in this case the increased communication is used by the commanders at the rear to assess the situation and send support in time for it to be useful, otherwise communication is at critical milestones.

The communication themes emerging from the interviews were also supported in the focus groups. An illustration of rapid communication during Space Shuttle launches was provided as follows:

You're automatically going to trip over each other unless there's a lot of communication between the teams. So what we do is we put a senior kind of swat member and all they do is run around and talk to you. I am two phone calls from an expert on anything (PartA-FG1).

FG2 reached a similar consensus with the following example: “we just stand up in our cubicles or go to the coffee shop … whatever works. We work hard to network and matrix across all possible dimensions to build awareness, and we are very proactive about breaking down boundaries” and “I would say 60/40 or 70/30 [informal to formal]” (PartG-FG2).

A new communication theme emerging from the focus groups was the concept of co-locating staff to aid more rapid communication (FG2) with comments like: “Co-location is a factor here and may send it up to 80/20 [informal to formal]” (PartH-FG2) and “team space works best if collocated in generic space to allow much faster adaptation and communication. Fixed walls suck. Break out rooms are essential” (PartK-FG2).

Leadership and Decision Making for Dynamic Environments

The delegated-control approach with rapid decision making and a collaborative flexible style were common themes emerging from both the interviews and the focus groups. The delegated control approach pushed decisions to lower level experts so they could respond more quickly: “You need key decision makers to devolve responsibility” (PartJ-FG2). ITSVC3, who specialized in building large international data centers, illustrated as follows:

In large teams or areas where diverse knowledge is required … there is no way the project manager can be a technical specialist in all areas … mechanical and electrical, architecture, etc. The real skill is forming all of the different groups into a cohesive team. (ITSVC3)

Pharm2 reported pushing “decision making to the lowest practical level [so that] people are empowered to make vital decisions, to take advantage of fleeting opportunities.” DefSvc1 explained that “empowering people, allows rapid reaction.”

Various participants described how leaders needed to be “flexible and adaptive” (PartH-FG2): “you need to think on your feet” (PartI-FG2) and “you have to adapt to situations” (PartC-FG1), “you need to adjust your leadership style for the team to some extent … set more parameters at the start and then let them loose” (PartL-FG2), and “I try to adapt my leadership style to the team, whatever works. Adaptability is critical—horses for courses. I intuitively adapt to the team.” (PartM-FG2)

Across all of the focus groups there was agreement that there was a need to balance decision quality against decision speed. This represented an additional finding beyond the in-depth interviews. The new decision-making theme was clarified by FG1 as requiring timely decisions, based on rapidly collected and sometimes incomplete data. PartB-FG1 illustrated this point with the following narrative:

Know when you have ‘good enough.’ I worked with a guy who was a very good scientist, and he wanted to know down to about the fifth decimal place what the capacity of a particular unit needed to be. What's going to be the optimum number? In the end we missed the deadline and in hindsight we realized the bottom line was there were only three choices … it was a blower—we can get small, medium, large. You know small is too small, large is too big, medium works … and that's all we needed to know. We didn&%x0027;t need to know that its 1827 … all we needed to know is it's more than 1000 and less than 5000. (PartB-FG1)

FG1 described the concept as follows:

You have to be comfortable making a decision when you have to, not when you have all the information you would like to have to make it. You have to be able to make decisions with less information than you are comfortable with, or than you would prefer to have. (PartB-FG1)

FG3 provided another illustration:

Explain the time factor. Explain how you could analyze for a year and come up with a 4% or maybe 20% better decision but actually that would be a 100% worse outcome because we will miss the opportunity. That will be another year without the project outcome. (PartS-FG3)

FG1 participants discussed this point and concluded that in “rapidly changing projects, those (project managers) that have hard times making decisions don&%x0027;t survive very well. We push out responsibility to the lowest level” (PartC-FG1) followed by the ant-colony analogy:

I just let, as I called it, the ‘ant colony’ take care of it. Their ant colony got destroyed and they did a marvelous job of putting it back together. So I took a hands-off approach and I didn&%x0027;t need to put my hands into the ant colony (PartC-FG1).

Here is another example of why delegated control was considered important:

I&%x0027;m working on a project right now with waste energy conversion using [removed]. We have a problem where we have to take 20KW of power away from a very small space and I threw out to the team: ‘Here's the goal. We have a constrained space. We have unconstrained power to work with and we have a huge energy load that has to be dissipated. How should we make that happen?’ and the goal motivation was ‘we’ve got a contract to do this.’ If we can&%x0027;t make this part happen, the entire multimillion dollar project goes away and that's what we started with and if I&%x0027;d had said: ‘We need to build a heat exchanger,’ we would never come up with a process that said we can use the waste load to dissipate 80% of that heat that we are trying to remove, and make the entire system more efficient. (PartB-FG1)

The point in the above example is that, by completely delegating the decision, by setting the objective and allowing the experts to work out options, the outcome was optimized.


In reviewing the results in the context of prior literature and industry examples, it is reassuring to note that some of the themes emanating from this study are evident. For example, Mills (2007) reported how Google has a chief culture officer who aims to build a culture with “a flat organization, a lack of hierarchy, a collaborative environment.” Another example is Intel's culture, described as follows:

There are no executive perks at Intel; no executive dining rooms; no executive washrooms; no special places to park; we all work in a company where Andy Grove's cubicle—which I think is about 8 × 9—is just like everybody else's. It is the essence of that open environment that allows people to communicate directly and solve problems in a collaborative fashion (Grove & Ellis, 2001)

One advantage of a flat structure in a dynamic environment is the ability of team members with situational awareness and specialist knowledge to make more timely and relevant decisions. Processing a decision through multiple levels of a tall hierarchy can be a slow process, which can reduce the impact or relevance once made. In this study, team size was also a theme. Project managers sought agility by restricting the team to the smallest possible size able to achieve the goal, and by selecting highly motivated multi-skilled staff members. This theme has many industry examples. Burt Rutan designed and built Space Ship One with an average team size of 20 members, compared with the tens of thousands of staff members at NASA (Rutan, 2006). His advice was to keep the team small and to “choose them for the fire in their eyes, not their grades” (Rutan, 2006). Warman (2010) described how Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg managed initiatives with the smallest possible teams, providing an example of how only one single person developed and supported the Facebook iPhone application, used by hundreds of millions of people. Mike Schroepfer, Facebook's Vice President of Engineering, spoke about how “at large organizations, there's a lot of people that say no, and a lot of policies, and the window you can do something in is tiny” (Warman, 2010). Even the behemoth corporation, IBM, resorted to a small team of just 12 people to design the personal computer (PC) in its efforts to catch up with the newly evolving microcomputer market (Lambert, 2009). The PC team was separated from the main organization geographically and culturally to free them from the usual bureaucratic processes that had prevented them from catching up in the past (Lambert, 2009). They developed the PC in approximately one year, and the rest is history. Tall organizations may therefore gain benefit from creating a separate team with a sub culture to move more quickly in dynamic environments.

For predictable environments, process control (detailed procedures and plans) is considered to be the best control mechanism, but in dynamic environments, where tasks are more often unique or uncertain, culture can have a much higher impact on performance (Ouchi, 1979). Culture can be nurtured through staff selection, training, ceremonies, reward systems, mentoring, and leadership visions. Even the way an organization deals with or talks about its successes and failures can have a strong impact on culture. It was interesting to note how comfortable and in control participant organizations managed to get with their cultural focus on flexibility, pragmatism, expedience, egalitarianism, clear goals, and experimentation.

The leadership themes found in this study seem to match Shenhar and Wideman's (2000) description of the “explorer” style of leadership, suited to the concept and development phases of what they call “high technology” or “super high” technology projects. Such projects might involve new or emerging technologies with unknowns at commencement. The qualities of a manager with an “explorer” style include: being vision orientated, solution seeking, inspiring, determined, focused on the long range, and leads by example (Shenhar & Wideman, 2000). According to Deaux, Dane, and Wrightman (1993, p. 347) “highly authoritarian people are often uncomfortable in ambiguous situations.” The results of this study correlate with the findings of Müller and Turner (2010) that project managers of high complexity projects have higher leadership competencies in vision, influence, and motivation. More recently, Feger and Thomas (2012) theorized that leaders with a vision can make better use of a transformational style of leadership, which Dean and Bowen (1994) proposed to be a more successful style of leadership in quality. Transformational leadership motivates employees through desire to achieve a worthy vision more than through personal reward for blindly following a plan (Bass, 1990; Bass, 1999).

The “film director” style was one analogy the participants offered as a leadership approach for dynamic environments, where the leader has a clear vision, collaboration skills, and a willingness to share that vision and delegate some of the leadership to specialists. This style contrasts with the one proposed for static projects using established technologies, which according to Shenhar and Wideman (2000), benefits from leaders who are driver-administrators, with an emphasis on high levels of structure and stability.

Leadership and decision-making themes emerging from the interviews and focus groups centered around delegation, feedback loops, and pre-planned responses. A challenge already identified for decision making for leaders in dynamic environments is decision lag, in which decisions are not made in time to keep pace. This study suggests three approaches that may mitigate decision lag: decision delegation, rapid feedback loops, and pre-planned responses.

Decision Delegation

A recognized challenge in dynamic environments is the difficulty balancing decision quality against decision speed (Collyer & Warren, 2009). Because dynamic environments change so rapidly, the participants regarded it to be challenging for higher level managers to maintain awareness of change and complexity at lower levels, where specialized professionals operate. Higher management decisions based on tight control were perceived to be too slow and ill-informed to be of practical use in these environments. Devolved responsibility, whereby decision making is delegated to the lowest level possible, was advocated by five interview participants, and confirmed in the focus groups. Participants viewed this approach as empowering those who have the greatest levels of expertise to use their superior specialized knowledge and awareness to make decisions best suited to the goals provided by higher levels of management. For example, Start-up1 reported how “we try to give people responsibility and push it down as far as possible” and Pharm2 said “we push decision making to the lowest practical level. We empower people to make vital decisions, to take advantage of fleeting opportunities.”

DefSvc1 described how they “pushed the decision making to the lowest level. Empowering people, allows rapid reaction … requires trust, which comes from training and exercises,” and DefDevc2 reported: “we promote initiative on the ground. Allow flexibility to take advantage of fleeting moments. Allow flexibility with the key higher level objective in mind.” DefSvc1 summarized this approach with a description of how a lower level commander might be given a mission to secure a hill but also provided the “intent,” which might be to protect the left flank of a battalion advance. The commander is then free to adjust the mission according to circumstances to best achieve the intent. For instance, they may discover the enemy in the forest below the hill. Occasionally commanders may make the wrong decision and fail, but this approach is regarded as being better at adapting to a changing environment and more often result in mission success. The military term for this is directive control, where orders are reasonably detailed, but have built-in flexibility.

These views align with advice from Graetz et al. (2006) who argued that more fluid business environments benefited from more distributed leadership. They also argued that the days when management could provide all the answers are gone and that managers need to be able to rely on capable and trusted personnel distributed across the entire organization (Graetz et al., 2006). Following the same theme and supporting the views of the participants is Turner and Crawford's study of 243 cases of corporate change, which found that empowerment had a strong relationship with change effectiveness (Turner & Crawford, 1998), but only when the empowered had sufficient skill and experience. In a static environment it is more feasible for high level management to be aware of lower level issues, so delegated decision making may not provide the same advantage. The concept of shared leadership in R&D management is now increasingly explored in studies (Clarke, 2012; Crevani, Lindgren, & Packendorff, 2007; Lindgren & Packendorff, 2011; Loufrani-Fedida & Missonier, 2015).

Decisions traditionally consume much time to gather information, make the decision, disseminate, and then implement. Through faster decision-making cycles an organization can take action more quickly than the environment changes. Directive control is a fast and flexible method of command to facilitate rapid decision making. Instructions are given in the form of intent, not detail. The method of execution is decided by the project team members using superior local situational or specialist knowledge to find an approach that best achieves the intent. Management burden is reduced at the top and spread to team members more knowledgeable about their own situations, and initiative is encouraged at all levels. As a result, significant decisions can be implemented in-time for maximum effect. General Gordon R. Sullivan, as reported by David Ulrich (1996), described the process as follows: “Once the commander's intent is understood, decisions must be devolved to the lowest possible level to allow these front-line soldiers to exploit the opportunities that develop”(Ulrich, 1996, p. 178).

Rapid Feedback Loops Linked to Heightened Decision Window Awareness

In some environments high level management may have higher levels of expertise, experience, or vision that needs to be applied to the decision-making process. In these cases delegation may not provide the same advantage. For example, a film director has a vision and needs to be hands-on to the point of micromanaging. The alternative to delegation in these cases appears to be rapid situational reporting, with the ability to make on-demand decisions. DefSvc1 related the example of the OODA loop. A U.S. Air Force military strategist analyzed why the U.S. F-86 in Korea was able to defeat the better performing MIG-15. He coined a term the OODA loop, which stands for Orient, Observe, Decide, Act (J. Boyd, 1986). Because the U.S. aircraft had a bubble cockpit it gave them better situational awareness, which in turn, allowed them to observe the results of their actions, make decisions more quickly, and work themselves into better positions. This principle can be applied to project management in rapidly changing environments. If the project manager can accelerate the decision cycle by accelerating the reporting cycle, hence observing and reacting to the changing project environment quickly, the project can be optimized.

David Ullman (2007) related how businesses can be paralyzed by rapid change rates, incapable of making a decision, somewhat like a rabbit caught in headlights. The timeliness of an implementation appears to be more important than achieving perfect quality in a rapidly changing environment. DefScv2 described this as follows:

The speed of decision is more important in a rapidly changing environment than a perfect one. If you wait for enough information, your window of opportunity will pass. Sometimes commanders make the wrong decision and fail, but it's better to have that approach in place else you will not be responsive enough to changing situations.

The danger of over analyzing is colloquially known in business as paralysis by analysis and summed up by the military maxim: “the greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect one” often attributed to the Prussian general Clausewitz (1873). In these environments leaders must be accustomed to making decisions without all the information they might otherwise like to have or face being overrun by events. Simply making decisions at a faster rate than the enemy and using delegated control, was a central element of the successful German World War II Blitzkrieg tactic (Frieser & Greenwood, 2005). In the dynamic project management context, the environment is the enemy. DefSvc1 summed up the theme here with the advice that the “speed of decision is more important in a rapidly changing environment than a perfect one.”

Pre-Planned Responses

DefSvc1 described how commanders have battle charts, which tell them what action to take under different circumstances: “if this happens—do that.” Startup2 described a similar approach: “Drilling is expensive … you need to plan for the downside, not just the upside … cater for the range of outcomes so you can respond quickly.” This technique is also used in the information technology industry, where disaster scenarios are often well pre-planned to allow for rapid response. This is a relatively standard part of risk management that can be customized in these environments. The main components of the approach used appeared to be: (1) setting clear goals; (2) empowering an experienced team to achieve those goals; and (3) providing as much flexibility as possible to change from a plan as long as it achieves the goal. These components allowed teams to adapt more quickly to the dynamics of the environment.


The results of this study suggest the following propositions regarding culture and communication and leadership in dynamic environments.

Proposition 1: Projects in dynamic environments might benefit from a culture that: (1) encourages and values flexibility and adaptability; (2) encourages and values pragmatism and expedience, which may require geographical or other separation from a larger organization; (3) aims for the smallest possible team of multi-skilled and highly motivated staff members organized in the flattest possible hierarchy, that is egalitarian; (4) focuses more on goals and experience, and less on process; and (5) values experimentation for its ability to eliminate dead ends and identify new solutions.

Proposition 2: Projects in dynamic environments might benefit from communication styles that: (1) increase emphasis on fast, timely, and succinct communication; (2) increase the proportion of informal communications; (3) emphasize timeliness over thoroughness; and (4) adjust communication rates in proportion with change rates and risk.

Proposition 3: Projects in dynamic environments might benefit from leadership and decision-making approaches that: (1) employ a vision combined with a collaborative egalitarian approach with delegation to achieve the vision; (2) are ‘hands-on’ where required but respect and trust the expertise and advice of the team; is (3) are flexible and adapt and change course quickly in reaction to a changing environment; (4) use directive control, delegating decision making to the lowest possible, leading with the vision, and communicating through intent; (5) maintain high levels of awareness of the limited decision window; (6) employ rapid and pragmatic reporting (feedback) to inform rapid and pragmatic decision making; (7) constantly update pre-planned responses to allow rapid reactions; and (8) prioritize timely pragmatic decisions over perfect decisions.

Contrasting Models Illustration

Table 7 attempts to highlight the key differences of culture communication and leadership in mostly static and mostly dynamic project environments. While it is not argued that either extreme exists as described, the contrast serves to illustrate the differentiators and management approaches used by the participant managers. The reality is that most projects have an element of dynamism that exists somewhere between these extremes, thus a compromise between these two extremes would usually be required.

Static Environments Dynamic Environments
Stability is the Norm Rapid Change is the Norm
The environment is largely predictable The environment is difficult to predict
Targets are stationary Targets are moving
Environment is relatively static—changes yearly or over decades Dynamic environment—changes daily or weekly
Change brings more harm than good Change brings more good than harm
Allowing change is mostly damaging Resisting change is mostly damaging
Work is directable like a bullet—like a factory production line Work is guidable like a missile—like cars guided by drivers, rules, and signs
Business cases stay valid Business cases change constantly
Strategic input is required at the start Strategic input is required throughout
Flexible, Collaborative, Organic, Adaptive
Rigid Flexible
Formal Formal framework, informal core
Authoritarian, tall hierarchy Collaborative, flat hierarchy
Planned, strict, structured Organic, experimental, adaptive
Stakeholders expect and understand static environments Stakeholders expect and understand dynamic environments
Rapid Informal Complimenting Less Regular Formal
Focus on formal communication Larger mix of informal with formal
Slow, formal, thorough Includes rapid, informal, and practical
Tall hierarchy Flat hierarchy
Formal informs informal Informal and formal inform each other
Exploratory Vision Driven Using Collaboration and Delegation
Drives down path Explores through the jungle
Clear view of path Clear view of environment and goals
Highly structured Highly adaptable
Knows the path Knows the jungle
Leads a hierarchy Collaborates with a team
Plans dictated centrally Actions decided by team
Manages with plan Guides with goals
Workers follow plan Specialists deliver vision
Team driven from above Team pursues goals
Decision Making
Rapid–Adequate–in Time
Decisions focused on accuracy Decisions focused on pragmatic expedience
Accuracy achieves lasting perfection Speed capitalizes on fleeting opportunity
Intent and objectives set at top Intent and objectives set at top
Decisions made at the top based on information passed up the hierarchy Decisions made in the middle by people with situational/subject matter knowledge
Action taken when confident of right decision Action taken in time to capitalize on fleeting opportunities
Decisions are made after all data are collected Decisions prepared in advance and executed when data are collected.

Table 7: Contrasting models of static and dynamic environments.


The goal of this study was to explore the problem of rapid change during the planning and execution of projects from the perspectives of successful practitioners. This study identified project management approaches related to culture communication and leadership that can be used to manage the problems caused by rapid change, and contributes to the evolving theory on how to manage projects in dynamic environments. This study answered the call for more empirical research on the actuality of project management practice (Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006; Cicmil, Williams, Thomas, & Hodgson, 2006; Ramadan & Tu, 2012), including the call for more theory development on decision making in flexible situations (Lenfle & Loch, 2010). The study also addresses a significant gap in the literature, faced by projects conducted in uncertain environments (Gray & Larson, 2003), which is an accelerating challenge (Perrino & Tipping, 1991; Rothwell & Zegveld, 1985). The decision-making themes emanating from this study address Piperca and Floricel's (2012) call for more research on how to respond to unexpected events. The major results suggest that managers faced with rapid change may benefit from a vision-led, egalitarian, goal-orientated culture supporting experimentation with more timely and efficient communication and flexible leadership with rapid decision making. To be clear, none of the participants reported abandoning traditional project management approaches but rather augmented them with an emphasis on techniques they believed mitigated the challenge of rapid change. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2013) acknowledges how an organization's culture, communication styles, leadership, and decision-making techniques can have a strong impact on a project's ability to meet its objectives This study expands on and compliments the PMBOK® Guide by elaborating on the specific elements of those dimensions or describing approaches that might be relevant to rapidly changing environments. Furthermore, the results confirm the likely relevance of the findings of related studies, including: Godé and Lebraty's (2015) ideas on the importance of rapid feedback in environments characterized by high levels of change and uncertainty; Brown and Eisenhardt's (1997) ideas on extensive communication in organizations challenged by continuous change; Turner and Crawford's (1998) findings on empowerment's relationship with change effectiveness; and many studies on environments that benefit from vision-led egalitarian cultures with flat management hierarchies (Donaldson & Hilmer, 1998; Hauck et al., 2004; Jones, 2004b; Marschan, Welch, & Welch, 1996a; Mayer, 2007b; Mills, 2007; Porter & Siegel, 1965).

For practitioners, the full set or themes resulting from this study provide examples of how fellow practitioners in dynamic environments have customized culture, communication, and leadership to optimize outcomes. Practitioners can use their professional judgment to decide whether the approaches in this study might be useful in mitigating the challenges in their own environments, experimenting with approaches from different industries. The most widespread benefit is expected to be for business, technology, and innovation projects, grappling with dynamism. Organizations encountering dynamism can adjust methodology, training, and policies, considering these approaches. Because dynamism is just one of many project dimensions that need to be considered when embarking on a project, practitioners still need to consider the relative strength of each dimension, and whether the level of dynamism justifies an adjustment in the approach.

The findings will also inform future research through propositions that can be tested. While the results may not be generalizable across all industries, they provide a starting point for further investigations into this increasingly important dimension.

This study formed part of the exploratory and descriptive stages of research into a phenomenon, deliberately using maximum variation sampling to obtain views from diverse industries to identify uncommon practices that might be useful across multiple industries (Singleton & Straights, 2005). The flip side of this early stage of research is that approaches used in one industry cannot be demonstrated to apply to all others, and of course this study did not attempt to measure the benefits of the results or the negative side effects of using the approaches. An explanatory stage is therefore required, where relationships between variables are tested. It would be useful to know more about adoption rates for the approaches recommended by the participants in this study. It would be helpful to understand these adoption rates across industries, cultures, communities, and minority populations. Attempts to quantify the merits and side effects of the dynamic theory approaches would also be helpful. Depending on the results of the adoption rate and benefit studies, it would be helpful to understand how well the approaches are represented in the various bodies of knowledge and by the various training and education systems available for project managers, to determine whether there was some justification for adjustment in this area.

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Dr. Simon Collyer is a project management practitioner and researcher interested in challenges and solutions for dynamic environments across all industries, which he is believes are increasing problems for all projects. He can be contacted at

Project Management Journal, Vol. 47, No. 6, 111–125
© 2016 by the Project Management Institute
Published online at

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.

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