The development of a project management culture assessment framework



The management of projects has become a major strategic issue for many global companies. Various issues such as strategic alliances, rapid movement of labor and capital, and failure of projects are calling for the need of risk assessment and management from a new perspective. An organization today that wants to remain competitive in providing its customers with continually improved products and services has no choice but to use project management concepts and processes (Cleland 1994). As more and more companies venture into the area of project management as a mean to improve the way in which their businesses are run, a lot of theory and methodology has been written about how to organize and manage new project teams but still many projects fail. Many of these organizations such as government departments are not typical project management environments thus adding to the high failure rate. Typical factors that are associated with project failure are the lack of feasibility studies, ignoring the project environment, over management of project managers and their teams, the lack of post-project reviews, putting political agendas above the objectives of the project, and so on (Pinto and Kharbanda 1996).

One of the main causes of project failure is that the organizational culture is not supportive of projects (Gray and Larson 2000). The creation of a supportive organizational culture is critical for the success of any project and ultimately the growth of the business. Cleland (1994) states it clearly that “Project management meets the need for providing an organizational focus not found in the traditional form of organization. However justified, project management should not be used until the leaders of the organization are committed to its use and are willing to prepare a suitable culture for project management to germinate and grow.”

Dinsmore (1999) is of the opinion that “successful organizations will have to change their business processes from being hierarchical, functional organizations to being fast tracking, entrepreneurial enterprises made up of portfolios of projects that are ever changing and renewable. This needs a faster, cheaper, better way of doing business embodied in a project management culture.” Gray and Larson (2000) further stated that there is a strong interrelationship between project management structure, organizational culture, and project success. Kotter and Heskett (1992) found a relationship between culture and economic performance in organizations.

Organizations can successfully manage projects within the traditional functional organization, if the culture encourages cross-functional integration. It has also been noted that companies with matrix structures that theoretically supports projects, break down because the culture of the organization does not support the division of authority between project managers and functional managers. They have also observed that companies rely on independent project teams because the dominant culture of the organization would not support the innovation and support necessary for success (Gray and Larson 2000).

Project management literature indicates that project culture is important to project success (Cleland 1994; Lientz and Rea 1999). The concept of “project culture” is however not clearly defined (Du Plessis 2001; Wang 2001). Hobbs and Menard (1993) described project management as a “system of attitudes and behavior patterns that can be referred to as a project management culture.” Cleland (1982, 1988) stated that in its cultural context, project management can be seen as a complex whole consisting of knowledge, beliefs, skills, attitudes, and other capabilities and habits acquired by members of the project society. Wang (2001) suggested that project management should also have a professional culture, where professional culture refers to the culture shared by members of a profession. Most of the authors use the project management culture term synonymous with that of organizational culture (Duncan 2001; Hobs and Menard 1993; Kerzner 2000). Rousseau (1990) stated that organizational researchers, though conceptualizing culture similarly, have assessed widely different elements. They tend to focus on their “preferred” set of culture elements (i.e., unconscious assumptions [Schein 1984], values [Martin and Siehl 1983], behavioral norms [Cooke and Rousseau 1988], communication effectiveness [Shockley-Zalabak and Morley 1989; Shockley-Zalabak 1992], and material artifacts [Peters and Waterman 1982]).

Few studies investigated the operational side of project management culture, how it manifests itself in organizations, and how it theoretically can be defined (Wang 2001; Du Plessis 2001). The operational dimension of project culture is highlighted by Deal and Kennedy (1982) who define organizational culture as “the way we do things around here.” According to Chell (1994), this operational dimension of culture comprises of three categories of beliefs, i.e., beliefs about how employees should be treated; beliefs about professionalism, and support of efforts of doing a good job; and beliefs about how the organization interfaces with the environment and strives to accomplish its mission.

This paper describes the attempt of developing a valid and reliable measure of project management culture from an operational perspective as defined by Deal and Kennedy (1982).

Theoretical Framework of Project Management Culture Assessment Framework

Understanding the underlying principles of project management will facilitate the identification of project culture elements. Whilst project management culture is not equated with organizational culture, one needs to understand and be aware of the basic dimensions of organization culture.

Organizational culture in its most basic form refers to a system of shared norms, beliefs, values, and assumptions that bind people together (Ball and Asbury 1989; Schein 1984). In addition, each type of organizational culture reflects a socially constructed, stable sense of what an organization is and should be. Each represents what certain groups of people think when they hear the word “organization,” or when they consider which organizations are “good.” Culture is a characteristic of the organization, not of individuals, but it is manifested in and measured from the verbal and/or nonverbal behavior of individuals—aggregated to the level of their organizational unit. People who hold a common conception of what the organization should be and how work should be organized will tend to create an organization that realizes that conception. And an individual who joins that organization will tend to become socialized to that conception and come to perceive the way work is conducted as appropriate and natural (Deal and Kennedy 1982).

The importance of organizational culture for business success has also been investigated to establish the role of culture as success factor. According to Gray and Larson (2000) research suggests that there are ten primary characteristics that, in aggregate, capture the essence of an organization’s culture namely:

Member identity — the degree to which employees identify with the organization as a whole rather than with their type of job or field of profession expertise.

Team emphasis — the degree to which work activities are organized around groups rather than individuals.

Management focus — the degree to which management decisions take into account the effect of outcomes on people within the organization.

Unit integration — the degree to which units within the organization are encouraged to operate in a coordinated or interdependent manner.

Control — the degree to which rules, policies, and direct supervision are used to oversee and control employee behavior.

Risk tolerance — the degree to which employees are encouraged to be aggressive, innovative, and risk seeking.

Reward criteria — the degree to which rewards such as promotion and salary increases are allocated according to employee performance rather than seniority, favoritism, or other nonperformance factors.

Conflict tolerance — the degree to which employees are encouraged to air conflicts and criticisms openly.

Means versus end orientation — the degree to which management focuses on outcomes rather than on techniques and processes used to achieve those results.

Open-systems focus — the degree to which the organization monitors and responds to changes in the external environment.

Gray and Larson (2000) described the relationship between organizational culture and successful projects by means of a riverboat metaphor where culture is the river and the project is the boat. If the culture of the organization is conducive for completing projects successfully it is like paddling down stream. In such an environment teamwork and cross-functional operation are the norm, conflict is recognized and dealt with and excellence is the driver. In an opposite environment where effective project management is inhibited, it is like paddling up stream. Everything requires more effort, more time, and more attention. In such an organization teamwork would be discouraged, conflict would be rife or ignored, risk is avoided, and projects would face several obstacles.

However, Gray and Larson (2000) stated that the ideal culture is not at any extreme of the dimensions they identified. An optimal culture would balance concern with output and processes to achieve those outcomes.

Graham and Englund (1997) have designed a tool called “PEAT” (Project Environment Assessment Tool) for measuring and determining the environment that supports project success. It has not been developed to measure project success, but to determine how well organizations support project management. They have identified eight factors that directly influence project success.

Strategic Emphasis

This factor indicates the degree to which the project is aligned with business strategy. In the past, projects often proliferated without regard to strategic importance. Projects have to be selected based on the contribution to business strategy.

Exhibit 1. Integrated Elements of Project Management Culture

Integrated Elements of Project Management Culture

Upper Management Support

The degree to which upper management’s behavior supports project success is indicated by this factor. To increase the chances of project success, it is expected of management to behave in ways sometimes contrary to the accepted ways (organizational culture) in the organization.

Project Planning Support

One of the most important factors in project success is having team members develop the project plan. This allows for focus and buy-in.

Customer/End-User Input

Successful projects need close contact with customers and end-users in order to get the specifications and features of what is needed ensuring the correct design and execution.

Project Team Development

A well-functioning team, whose members are committed and motivated, is essential for a successful project.

Project Execution Support

The organizational practices and systems must support the execution of the project. Often the project beginning is trumpeted with much “fanfare,” then allowed to starve to “death” during the execution phase.

Communication and Information Systems

Good communication amongst project members is important. Communication should be easy and across different teams project reviews and regular feedback is vital as well as making information available to all current and future project teams.

Organizational Support

The systems in the organization should support projects. Rewards and promotion should foster positive performance and motivation.

Literature also indicate other elements to be present in a project environment that establish and foster the desired project culture, i.e., business sponsorship (Zimmer 1990; Hal, 1999; Saia, 1997); senior management involvement (Cleland 1994); middle management involvement (Glaser et al 1987); team based and participatory approach (Cleland 1996; Martin and Tate 1998; Sweeney and Lee 1999); project orientation and control (Hall 1999); project management methodology (Martin and Tate 1998; Zimmer 1999); communication and information systems (Graham and England 1997; Saia 1997; Hall 1999); project review and learning (Bohn 1994; Peters and Homers 1996; Kotnour 1999).

From the above mentioned it could be concluded that there is no “ideal” organizational culture, but that there are certain dimensions that can be utilized to underpin a culture. If the associated descriptive elements of a successful project, project management, and organizational culture are taken into consideration it is possible to identify the cultural elements in an organization that can contribute successfully to a project.

In order to develop a theoretical framework of what a project management culture would entail, the associative descriptive elements identified in the literature must be included in such a framework. A summary of the identified elements of a project management culture (although the list is not exhaustive) can be summarized in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 2. Questionnaire on Defining a Project Culture

Questionnaire on Defining a Project Culture

These descriptive elements can be further divided into four main categories, i.e., people, systems and structures, processes, and the environment. The people related category refers to the people and their subsequent behavior involved in the projects and include elements such as interpersonal relationships; management and stakeholder commitment; interdependence; discipline of delivery; risk propensity; conflict tolerance; learning affinity; results orientation; open communication; open system focus; and team orientation. The system and structure category refers to the systems and structural elements that have to be created and applied to ensure project success. Elements included in this category are team approach; interdependence; flexible boundaries; customer orientation; project methodology; and a supportive environment. The associated descriptive elements included in the process category include inter alia project life-cycle phases; results and speed of delivery; controlled/disciplined procedures; learning and continuous improvement; and customer orientation and systems thinking. The environment category relate to elements such as strategic emphasis; upper management support; project planning support; customer/end-user support; project team development; project execution support; communication and information systems; and organizational support. Although one could theoretical assign the various elements to certain categories, the complex nature of the theoretical construct must allow for a high degree of flux on the one hand, and at the same time a seemingly low degree of correlation among some of the items.

Exhibit 2. Questionnaire on Defining a Project Culture

Questionnaire on Defining a Project Culture

Exhibit 3. Results of Key Dimensions of a Project Management Culture

Results of Key Dimensions of a Project Management Culture

Using the previously described framework, it is therefore envisaged that an operational project management culture would consist of four main categories, i.e., people, project methodology (system and structure elements), project process, and the project environment that can be divided into several dimensions. Each dimension represents a number of associative descriptive elements as identified from the literature. The degree to which an organization supports these dimension will determine its project successes.

The next logical step after formalizing a theoretical framework of a project management culture would be to find support from real-life project situations. The research procedure followed will be described in the next section.

Research Method

Organizational culture is perceived by researchers as a relatively recent addition to organizational behavior, and the research base is still incomplete; characterized by inconsistent definitions, varied methodologies, and quantitative treatments that are rare (Kreitner and Kinicki 1995).

Many researchers have agreed that multiple methods are the most accurate way to capture the idiosyncrasies of an organization’s culture. The vantage point from which a phenomenon is perceived determines what it is that we will see, and no one vantage point provides a complete picture (Faules 1988; Glaser, Zamanou, and Hacker 1987; Jick 1979; Rousseau 1990). Rousseau (1990) suggests that the method appropriate to assessing culture depends on those elements we choose to examine.

The use of multiple research methods designed to tap the range of project cultural elements and processes called a triangulation approach was adopted. The multiple methods used in this triangulation approach were a literature study, a qualitative dimension questionnaire, and concept mapping. The interpretative paradigm is relevant in this study, since the perceptions and understanding of project culture of practicing project managers were determined, which contend that organizations are cultures because their existence is based on human interaction.

A literature study of project management and organizational culture were necessary to identify the key concepts and understand projects and organizational culture. The emphasis of the literature study included research on three aspects:

Exhibit 4. Concept Mapping of Project Management Culture Elements

Concept Mapping of Project Management Culture Elements

• Projects and project management

• Project success factors

• Organizational culture and climate.

Literature Study

The literature study had to provide clarification on the dimensions of organizational culture with specific emphasis on how it pertains to an organization having to implement projects, in whatever form, successfully.

Qualitative Dimension Questionnaire

A qualitative dimension questionnaire was developed from the key dimensions and associated elements identified in the literature study (Phase 1). This questionnaire has a close section consisting of eleven key dimensions derived from the project critical success factors displayed in Exhibit 1, which had to be evaluated, as well as an open section where any additional key dimension could be mentioned by the participant. This can be viewed in Exhibit 2.

The research was carried out in two phases. In Phase 1, a theoretical framework was developed and the key dimensions of project management culture were identified. In Phase 2, questionnaire items that reflect the dimensions identified in Phase 1 were judged by a sample of fifty academics and project managers involved in project management training, educational and research activities for the relevance of the items to be included in a project management culture assessment framework.

The questionnaire was distributed to a random sample of fifty project managers, out of a population of 150, attending postgraduate studies in project management at the University of Pretoria in 2001, as well as members of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) of South Africa. They represented various organizations (technical and nontechnical) in South Africa.

Exhibit 5. Comparison between Findings on Project Culture Elements Identified from Literature and Questionnaire with the Sixteen Elements from Concept Mapping

Comparison between Findings on Project Culture Elements Identified from Literature and Questionnaire with the Sixteen Elements from Concept Mapping

They were requested to complete the close-section of the questionnaire, (Exhibit 2) according to their perception of the eleven dimensions, identified from the literature, in a project culture, by indicating with a line drawn on the dimensions-scale between high and low. An example was provided. They were also requested to add any relevant key dimension according to their experience in the open-section of the questionnaire.

They were requested to complete the close-section of the questionnaire, according to their perception of the key dimensions, identified from the literature, in a project culture, by indicating with a line drawn on the dimensions-scale between high and low. An example was provided. They were also requested to add any relevant key dimension according to their experience in the open-section of the questionnaire. The results can be seen in Exhibit 3.

Concept Mapping

Concept mapping, a technique developed by Professor Trochim of the Cornell University (, 2001) is a general method with which people’s ideas about some topic in a graphical form can be clarified and described. By mapping out concepts in pictorial form, a better understanding of the relationships among the concepts can be drawn. Its application value is multiple. Concept mapping is especially a useful method for developing a conceptual framework, as is the case in this study.

Concept mapping encourages the participant group (research sample) to stay on task, and the conceptual framework is expressed in the language of the participants rather than in that of the planner/evaluator/researcher. With its pictorial representation and its participant-oriented features concept mapping can be a powerful method to organize complex problems and ideas.

The main focus of the concept mapping process was to further explore and clarify the concept of project management culture. It is important to select experienced/competent participants who can contribute freely and not be influenced by the researcher/facilitator. A sample of thirty practicing project managers (different from the previous sample), who are postgraduate students in project management at the University of Pretoria (2001) and who represent a cross-section of organizations in South Africa, dealing with all types of projects were selected. Since they are experienced and come from a varied background with regard to projects it was felt that they would be able to make a valuable contribution to the study outcome.

Exhibit 6. Project Culture and Descriptive Elements

Project Culture and Descriptive Elements

The timing and venue of the event should be suitable and convenient for participants to fully participate. Participant were gathered during a lecture session week, that all attended. They were asked to participate in an early morning session (all were enthusiastic and energetic) and saw this as an added learning event, since they are interested in project management themselves. An initial two-hour session was scheduled to generate ideas, with an additional two-hour session the next day to sort and prioritize ideas. The elements generated by the participants were structured in a logical combination of elements and evaluated in terms of their relevance to project management culture. The elements were put together in terms of meaning and mutuality during a clarification and numbering session. The elements were subsequently rated according to importance and visually illustrated using cluster analysis and concept maps. From the responses it was clear that all the dimensions and descriptive elements were perceived as important. The results can be seen in Exhibit 4.

In comparing the results between the qualitative dimension questionnaire and the concept mapping procedure, support was found for the suggested project management assessment framework. The results can be seen in Exhibit 5.


The literature researched indicated that a project culture is important for project success and projects are key building blocks in the design and execution of business strategies. Gray and Larson (2000) acknowledged that, “project managers must shape a project culture that stimulates teamwork and high levels of personal motivation as well as a capacity to quickly identify and resolve problems that threaten project work.” Findings from the research conducted provided no definition of “project culture.” It was found that the concepts “project culture,” “project management culture,” “project climate,” and “project environment” are interrelated and often used in the same context.

However, sufficient qualitative information was gathered from the research to define the concept “project culture” and develop a qualitative dimension questionnaire of project management culture.

The authors are of the opinion that the definition of organizational culture by Dale and Kennedy (1992), “the way we do things around here,” can be superimposed onto projects and project management. Adding to this the definition of organizational culture by Schein (1984), “the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems,” provides enough information to adequately define the concept.

An illustration of how project management culture defined this way, together with the descriptive elements belonging to each category and can be seen in Exhibit 6.

If we take the definition of organizational culture as being “the way we do things around here” (Deal and Kennedy 1992), and superimpose it onto a project, the following can be said about project culture:

• The way = the project process (how)

• We = the people, project team, and stakeholders (who and for whom)

• Do things = project management methodology (what)

• Around here = the project environment (where).

The results obtained from the qualitative dimension questionnaire, the literature study, and the concept mapping procedure can be used as an evaluation tool for project success or as a process to create a project culture in the organization. The degree to which an organization supports these elements and how they will measure against the project management culture framework, will determine how successful they will be in utilizing projects as a mean of achieving their business goals.


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