The meaning and importance of culture for project success


A strong culture shapes an organization's decision patterns, guides actions, and drives individual behavior of all members. In its most obvious form, it is “The way we do things around here to succeed.” In its less visible form, it encompasses the shared beliefs, norms, symbols, values, attitudes that permeate all parts of the organization. These enduring patterns help provide stability – an important benefit – for the organization. But, a strong culture can also erect barriers to getting the results needed to remain competitive. Culture is potent. It can block an organization's (or project) strategy or catalyze it.

Project leaders who lack cultural awareness can become restricted and handicapped by the values and beliefs of the base organization's culture. They can have difficulty understanding and adapting to different norms and behaviors across the organization. By contrast, enlightened project leaders have a strong connection to their cultures. They are more sensitive and capable of interacting with other kinds of cultures and are more adaptable, flexible and effective. This paper discusses what organizational culture is and is not and how it influences behavior. Our purpose is to help project leaders gain a better understanding of organizational culture, its underlying process, how it develops, identify the characteristics of the core culture types, how to develop ways for recognizing, changing and adapting to their own behavior while working with dissimilar cultures. This knowledge can help project leaders become more effective and get the planned project results. It also discusses ways to describe culture, the attributes of the “Core” culture, and the critical link between strategy, culture and leadership behaviors. This paper is grounded in theory and is both descriptive and prescriptive and offers some suggestions that can help project leaders understand their culture and that of others and is an aid to making projects more successful.

What is Organizational Culture?

Basically, an organization's culture is its personality. It's comprised of assumptions, beliefs, values, norms, and tangible signs (artifacts) or organization members and their behaviors. Culture is a very powerful force and is multidimensional. The same person placed in different organizations (or parts of the same organization) would act differently, because a strong embedded culture creates social ideals that guide individual behavior. These ideals are manifested in a number of ways. A strong culture can generate commitment to the organization's values. In high performing organizations (Collins & Porras 1998) strong cultures endure and are a means by which organizations can strengthen their performance, adapt to change and changing environments while increasing their chances of survival and maintaining their competitive performance. Culture is a means by which messages about what the organization stands for is conveyed to employees and other stakeholders. When individuals become committed to the organization's beliefs, those beliefs become internalized and individual members hold them as their personal beliefs. Whether we as individuals are aware or not, the internalization process occurs and, if congruent, can be a means of personal satisfaction. In other words, our organization's personality becomes our personality and vice-versa.

Understanding the culture of your organization is critical to running successful projects. Culture resides in every fold of an enterprise, influencing the dynamics of how people perform, relate and perceive the organization's impact on their lives. The organizational psychologist Edward Schein defined organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has 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.” (Schein,1992, p34)

Schein's definition is insightful. Shared assumptions are the heart of any culture. It references problem solving and adaptation, which differentiate organizational culture from other types of cultures not bounded to business. Finally, it highlights the generational nature of culture, recognizing that succeeding groups of organization members learn about culture from the current generation.

What Internal Forces Shape Culture? The Link between Strategy, Culture, Leadership and Performance

Powerful external and internal forces shape an organization's culture that impact projects.

The vision, mission, strategy whether well conceived and communicated or not are played out by the organization. For example, in some organizations like Southwest Airlines every employee can tell you precisely the organization's strategy. And, it has a profound impact on the success of that organization's culture and performance. Some organizations have as their strategy to dominate the marketplace and have the only product, technology or service and strive toward maintaining stability. Others strive to have the most superior products or services and are extremely adaptive.

Structure affects culture. For example, rigid, formal and command and control structures can promote functional efficiency at the expense of collaborative innovation (projects). Within the structure of the organization subcultures typically exit. Subcultures grow out of different locations and occupations and the provision of services. Even within the same organization, subcultures may be starkly different from the base organization's culture. For example, the marketing department may embrace values even more fervently than the base culture, whereas the research department may challenge dominate “command and control” values of the corporate culture.

Leadership actions communicate beliefs, values and assumptions and what is most important. A leader's actions far outweigh newsletters, memos or policy manuals. Spending time walking the corridors and speaking and listening to employees and customers communicates a powerful message. Some leaders emphasize incentives and rewards. They foster individual and group competition. Other leaders encourage working in a collaborative manner and synergist relationships.

Human resources practices such as who gets hired and promoted, who gets terminated or demoted, who gets counseled and coached, who goes to training. Are people handled humanly or treated as an expense line item on the budget? How are people rewarded and how their performance is evaluated all send powerful messages and shape culture? Who gets rewarded?

Performance measures play an enormous role in determining an organization's culture. What gets measured – profits, costs savings, behaviors. Is individual or team contributions emphasized. Is short term or long term thinking and decisions emphasized.

External forces also shape culture_and are very powerful_since organizations reflect transnational, national, regional, industry and occupational ideologies. These may take the form of religion, science, political ideologies, and environmental concerns (nuclear energy, wildlife, world hunger). The substance of an organization's culture may reflect many beliefs, only some of which originate within the organization. All of these elements listed above affect how people perceive the organization and how the behave.

Do You Know Your Organization's Culture?

Understanding and assessing your organization's culture can mean the difference between success and failure in today's fast changing business environment. Leaders typically have a view of their culture based on wishes than on a grounded, rational view. Understanding and then confronting the reality of an organization's culture may not always be pleasant, but it is necessary. Very often what management pays attention to and rewards are often the strongest indicators of the organization's culture. This is often quite different then the values it verbalizes or the ideals it strives for. Think for a minute about the culture you work in and imagine you were asked to describe your organization to an outsider. How would you answer the following questions: What ten words would you use to describe your company? Around here what's really important? Around here who gets promoted? Around here what behaviors get rewarded? Around here who fits in and who does not fit in? Does management encourage or discourage innovation? Do mavericks fit in or do they get pushed out? Does management reward employees for coming up with new ideas and challenging old ways of doing things? Does the organization truly value excellence or is the mentality “just ship it”? Does management pay attention to the wellbeing of employees or is it completely focused on task and profits?

This kind of inquiry can give insight into the real culture of your organization and some of its underlying values and beliefs. It may not be what you think. Your organization's culture is not the espoused values developed at an offsite meeting and posted on your website. These are ideals. What you strive to be and what you hope to endorse, may be completely different from the values, beliefs and norms expressed in your actual practice and behavior. It is critical that you awaken and find out who you really are as well as striving for who you want to be. A good evaluation or assessment of where you are now can provide sound measurable data about the real organization's values and beliefs. Individuals, groups, departments, projects, and organizations seldom fit one particular classification or pure type because they represent complex social systems and mixtures of many cultural patterns. Nevertheless, there are models that identify some systematic process that project and senior leaders can use to make sense of their environment. The one most compelling, elegant and robust used extensively by some very high profile firms is the model created by William Schneider. The rest of this paper will briefly describe Schneider's model, an archetypal model that can be helpful for project as well as senior leaders in understanding the different dimensions of culture.

The Four Core Cultures

The foundation of each of the four cultures rests on what each culture focuses on and how each makes decisions. Each culture is uniquely defined by the kind of input that is important to it and by the process it relies on to form judgments and make decisions. When viewed together, the four cultures reveal a number of underlying patterns (See Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

The underlying pattern is illustrated by two axes that when combined with one another along two separate axes yield four component parts pf the table and represent the four core cultures. The vertical axis considers what an organization pays attention to, or the content. The horizontal axis considers how an organization makes decisions, forms judgments or the process. The content axis is bounded by actuality and possibility; the process axis is bounded by impersonal and personal.

It is important to note that Schneider states “that the qualities and characteristics associate with the content and process axes are organizational and cultural preferences or central tendencies” and as such “are not exclusionary – having a preference for one does not preclude involvement in the other.” (Schneider, 1994, p51) It does not mean that facts are all that an actuality organization deals with or that a possibility organization never attends to facts. One simply predominates or is central to how the firm works. A brief description of each core culture is provided below.

CONTROL Core Culture

This culture is all about certainty and has its roots in a more militaristic model. It fundamentally exists to ensure certainty, predictability, safety, accuracy and dependability.

Control Culture
Strengths Weaknesses
Planning May be impersonal
Building systems, policies, and procedures Very intense work environment
Spotting problems quickly; corrective action May give outsides message “we can take you or leave you”
Creating order Good ideas from below may get lost
Clarifying roles People are reluctant to volunteer bad news
Realistic decision making Too much compliance
Being objective and realistic Hard to voice conflict, disagreements
Gaining a dominate position in markets Information flows upward not laterally


This culture is very much fixed on achievement and gaining distinction on being the very best and or having the very finest/highest quality – a five star rating. This is the culture of uniqueness, of one-of-a-kind products and/or services.

Competence Culture
Strengths Weaknesses
Setting high performance standards Over plans and analyses
Having very high technical expertise Emotionally controlled
Establishing a creative and exciting place Tough on people – people feel pressured
Being future & possibility oriented Winning becomes overly important
Valuing professionalism Advises against collaboration and teaming
Incentive based reward systems May lose sigh of the human element
Promoting individual accomplishments Generalists are not developed
Good at adapting and changing Win-win situations may be overlooked
Decision making is thorough and systematic People feel leadership is never satisfied and they are underperforming


This culture basically has its roots in teams, family and affiliation and is all about synergy. It fundamentally exists to ensure unity and close connections with the customer. It pays a great deal of attention to concrete, tangible reality, actual experience and matters of practicality and utility. However, its decision-making process is people driven, organic and informal.

Collaboration Culture
Strengths Weaknesses
Building and managing diversity It is prone toward short term thinking
Open, free and direct communication May become over compromising
Building and developing values that drive the organization May fail to properly recognize “individual” achievement
Developing and utilizing teams Takes longer to make decisions
Supporting relationships, people treat one another in a sensitive and caring manner People refrain from dissent for fear of team ostracism
Partnering with it's customers Over-adaptive, environment sways decisions
Listening to other people Inclined toward de-emphasizing planning


This culture has its roots in religion and religious systems, meaningfulness and self-actualization and is all about enrichment. It pays attention chiefly to potentiality, ideals and beliefs, aspirations and inspirations, and creative options. Its decision making method is people driven, open-minded and subjective.

Cultivation Culture
Strengths Weaknesses
People feel cared for and nurtured Projects may not always get finished
It builds commitment and dedication within it's ranks Prone toward idealism and/or perfect solutions
It offers many opportunities for growth It is prone toward playing people favorites
It values creativity, people's aspiration Details may get overlooked
Trust is abundant It tends to be oriented against controls
It is very open to change Some ideas outlive their usefulness
People feel inspired It is prone toward inefficiency
It places a high value on training Prone toward playing favorites

Implications for the Project Leader

Projects often have a profound impact on the organization and the people within it. Projects transform all or parts of an organization and by their very nature create change to the base organization or individual departments. Projects usually involve the design and development of a new physical product or service that may contain complex technical elements. The problem most common of projects is to concentrate and emphasize the technical content at the expense of understanding its impact on the people (users) and the organization. An important characteristic of project work is the extent to which people who will use the product are invited to participate in the work. Very often the work is done by specialist without the cooperation, participation and commitment of the end users.

Project leaders must be able to interact with various sub-cultural elements within their organization and that of the customer and often simultaneously. Leaders who are aware of cultural differences can avoid or minimize unproductive conflicts and misunderstandings. Differences may arise for various reasons including, values, assumptions, and beliefs and arise from problems communicating across cultures. The nature of communication in research and development is very different from the language spoken in marketing. It is important for the leader to make a concerted effort to speak and listen in ways that take these differences into account. An obstinate, hasty judgment that attributes project barriers to another person's inflexibility or stubbornness may polarize differences, escalate conflict and make it very difficult or next to impossible to complete the project.

Projects have a higher probability of succeeding when they:

  • Start with the premise that organizations are living social systems.
  • Assess, identify, work with and align with the organization's core culture.
  • Design on the front end a system focused perspective and are implemented in a manner congruent with that design.
  • Tie directly to the organization's strategy
  • Align with culture and leadership initiatives
  • Understand that all organizations have a lead core culture and subcultures and the key is that the project culture must function in service of the organization's core or lead culture.


The purpose of this article was to demonstrate that project teams and organizations have unique personalities, value systems and a way they do things to succeed. The more a project leader understands the concept of culture, the more effective he will be in gaining support and guiding the project through the myriad of organization mazes. Project leaders often engage in transactions with several different cultures simultaneously. Project leaders typically work within their own base organization core culture, with the subcultures of other departments (research and development, marketing and sales or manufacturing – each with their own inherent “ways of doing things around here to succeed”) or working with external customers and their core culture. Understanding and speaking the language of the immediate culture is critical for project success. Effectively communicating with the surrounding culture can help develop plans, strategies that are more likely recognized and time-honored, by bypassing practices that violate the beliefs and values of the client organization.

Project leaders have many opportunities to create and shape a project culture in purposeful ways, but that culture must be in alignment with the organization's lead culture. This is an important part of project team development and a healthy team climate and stage setting to ensure project success.


Collins, J.C. & Porras, J.L., (1994) Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York: HaperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Haimes, G. (2001) Project Culture: A Paradigm Shift in Project Management: Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium. Nashville, TN, USA

Knutson, J. (2001). Project Management for Business Professionals. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Pitagorsky, G. (2001) Implementing PM Improvement-A Cultural and Organizational Change Initiative. Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium. Nashville, TN, USA

Schein, E.H, (1992). Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Schneider, W.E., (1994) The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work. Burr Ridge, Ill: Professional Publishing, Inc..

©2007 Larry Suda
Originally published as aprt of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Budapest, Hungary



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