Elephant on thin ice

navigating complexity through project culture


Colors in Projects

Vimetco Extrusion

Could you “fight” complexity with symbols? This paper wants to come up, not only with a simple answer, but with practical examples as well. The Project Management Institute (PMI), in Navigating Complexity: A Practice Guide (2014), has grouped the causes of complexity in three broad categories: human behavior, system behavior, and ambiguity. This paper intends to illustrate—through a real case study—the approach an organization followed when facing project complexity arising from causes clustered in two out of these three categories: human behavior and ambiguity. The aspects described in detail are those connected to project culture and its development throughout the project life cycle.

Keywords: project culture, complexity, symbols


This paper presents the story of a European, middle-sized organization which managed to successfully complete a two years’ duration project, with a €5.5 million budget, and having the modernization of a production line as its main objective. This was the company's first complex project, co-funded by the European Union. The funds were planned to be obtained through a bank loan which was delayed (due to specific bank procedures which were not taken into account at the project start). The company had limited project management knowledge and experience; they had limited resources and no appropriate technical expertise; they had no change or risk management procedures; and the team members were not willing “to adopt new procedures which would just increase administrative work” (quoting one of the informal leaders of the team). In addition to this, the initial, appointed project manager left shortly after the project start, leaving the team with conflicting perspectives regarding project deliverables.

How did it turn into a success story? Project culture was used as an antidote to cope with complexity.


Edgar Schein (1990) defined culture as “a (a) pattern of basic assumptions, (b) invented, discovered or developed by a given group…” (p. 111), stating that the levels in which culture manifests are: observable artefacts, values, and basic underlying assumptions (p. 111). If transposed in the context of the project organization, project culture can be defined as the shared norms, beliefs, values, and assumptions of the project team (Amado et al., 2014, p. 55), the purpose being “to develop a project identity which promotes the identification of the members of the project organization with the project and to give orientation within the project” (Gareis, 2005, p. 127). According to Gareis (2005), some of the methods/symbols that can be used to develop the project culture are: project name and project logo, project values and project mission statement, project slogans and project-related anecdotes, project-related artefacts, project language and a project room, and project-related events.

When addressing project complexity, PMI (2014) describes in detail three major sources of complexity: human behavior, system behavior, and ambiguity. This paper focuses on human behavior and ambiguity.

Human behavior refers to the way stakeholders act and interact in a project. When different personalities, cultures, power levels, interests, attitudes, etc. are “on stage,” the project becomes an unstable realm. Also, the higher the number of stakeholders, the more complex a project is. In this case, the role of project culture is to create a project identity in order to guide stakeholders towards what is considered an acceptable behavior in the project.

Ambiguity, described as “a state of being unclear and not knowing what to expect or how to comprehend a situation,” (PMI, 2014, p. 20) can also be reduced by the use of symbolic management (Gareis, 2005, p. 131), as a means to create and reinforce project culture.

Further, the case of a middle-sized company is presented as a success story about how project complexity was reduced by developing a strong project culture and gaining the commitment of the stakeholders involved.


Vimetco Extrusion is a Romanian company fully owned by Vimetco, the biggest aluminium smelter in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2012, in order to increase profitability per ton and cover the existing product range in a more efficient way, approach new, high-level markets, and decrease gas and energy consumption, the company decided to launch a new and ambitious project. The business case revealed the necessity of purchasing and installing a new press, along with the necessary ovens—all with the intent that they be integrated with the existing auxiliary equipment. The business case was included in a financing request submitted to the EU for a grant. On 29 June 2012, a financing contract was signed with the Romanian Ministry of Economy stating the value of the grant received (€1.5 million out of the total project cost of €5.5 million) and a maximum duration for the project of 24 months. By the end of the year, the contracts for purchasing the main equipment parts were signed, but the company (and the project team) was struggling since it did not have a project management plan, technical solution for the integration, nor agreement with a bank for a loan covering the rest of the project budget. The project manager left due to conflicting perspectives on the project deliverables. The situation was difficult since stopping or cancelling the project at this point was not an option because the funds had already been endorsed by the EU.

After a thorough evaluation of the situation, the project sponsor and the project manager identified several elements of complexity:

■ Goals, benefits, decision processes, and outcomes were not fully understood (or agreed upon) by key stakeholders

■ Key stakeholders’ representatives were being replaced over the duration of the project

■ The company's employees had insufficient experience in the type of work being undertaken by the project

All of these aspects, plus a six-month delay, were identified and acknowledged by the project sponsor who decided that urgent measures needed to be taken. An informal action plan was developed in order to cope with identified deficiencies. The high-level action plan reinforced some of the actions suggested in Navigating Complexity: A Practice Guide (PMI, 2014). The following section describes activities taken, which are connected with building the project culture, and discusses the corresponding actions suggested in Navigating Complexity: A Practice Guide.


The first step was to define the project values (See Exhibit 1). They were further used on all the internal project communications (reports, information notes, presentations, etc.) with the primary purpose of describing and preserving the energy and enthusiasm of the team members towards the project. The logo became so well known, and the project team members so proud of it, that team members immediately observed if it was missing from a report, plan, or presentation. This corresponds to the action suggested by Complexity Scenario 6: “Actively engage in two-way communication with all stakeholders (for example, listening activities, inspiring people with the vision of the program or project)” (PMI, 2014, p. 43).


Exhibit 1: Project values.


The project manager engaged the team to agree upon rules regarding communication, working habits, and desired behavior in project meetings. They became part of all meeting agendas and meeting minutes until the end of the project. Some were intentionally humorous, but most were serious. Posters were printed with project values, rules, project objectives, and business objectives and exhibited in the project management meeting rooms. These were shared with the main suppliers, especially as they became part of the core team during the installation, testing, and commissioning phases. This corresponds to the action suggested by Complexity Scenario 6: “Partner with suppliers and key stakeholders to establish plans for communication and develop other ground rules for aligning different processes” (PMI, 2014, p. 43).


The effort of developing a project culture continued with a “Best Team Member of the Month” contest. The aim of the contest was to increase awareness about the responsibilities and achievements of the team members and to reward, in a less formal manner, the effort of the project team. By the end of the project, there were 25 nominations put forward and nine awards granted. The prizes were symbolic and each prize came with a diploma stating the reason(s) for the recognition. The team became more cohesive and this became obvious during the weekly project meetings when team members started to express their concerns more freely. This corresponds to the action suggested by Complexity Scenario 6: “Create incentives to encourage team work and successful outcomes for the program or project” (PMI, 2014, p. 43).


No project management plans were developed without first taking into account the possibility of using them as communications tools. In order to gain the team members’ commitment in using the proposed project management tools, each tool was explained, its benefits described, and its application discussed during the project management meetings. The reports were adapted based on the feedback received from the main stakeholders with several changes made to their structure and to the way the tools were represented as a result of the input (see Exhibit 2). These artefacts correspond to actions suggested by Complexity Scenario 6: “Learn and understand the strategies or objectives of stakeholders to adapt the right communication techniques” and “Pay attention to small communication nuances among various stakeholders that may have big impact on the future of the program or project” (PMI, 2014, p. 42).


Exhibit 2: Project plans used as communications tools.


The project-related events were used to positively influence the feelings of the team members towards the project and to build team capability. Several events were organized:

  • A conflict management workshop (this corresponds to the action suggested by Complexity Scenario 6: “Provide conflict management and negotiation training to team members” (PMI, 2014, p. 43))
  • Holidays celebrated with the team
  • The project close-down event


The development of a positive project culture helped the project to conclude successfully. Building a strong, shared, and motivating culture was neither easy nor trouble-free. Time and space were devoted to its development throughout the project and several attempts were made to find the best solution. However, these attempts and the continuous focus on providing orientation to the stakeholders on what was considered good, desirable, and valuable in the project brought a set of actions that helped the team to deal with complexity in the project.



Simona Bonghez, PhD, owner of Colors in Projects, has over 20 years’ experience in management and project management. An author and speaker at many project management conferences, she is leading the delivery of consulting services and training programs, both in Romania and worldwide. Even though professional experience is a defining aspect in her activity, she thinks that she would not have come this far without a good sense of humour.


Razvan Pop, General Manager of Vimetco Extrusion, is passionate about all aspects of project management and quality. Mr. Pop is the leader of Romania's biggest extruder. Despite his technical background, he is a people-oriented person, a good communicator, and a committed team player for the long run. Thoroughly organized, determined, and enthusiastic as project manager, he turned Vimetco Extrusion's biggest project into a success story.


img    Simona Bonghez Razvan S Pop    |    img   @simonabonghez            |   img   Simona Bonghez

img    Simona Bonghez            |img

Amado, M., Ashton, K., Ashton, S., Bostwick, J., Clements, G., Drysdale, J., ….Wiley, D. (2014). Project management for instructional designers. Retrieved from http://pm4id.org/.

Crawford, L. (2013). Dancing in the kaleidoscope: The challenge of leading complex projects. Retrieved from http://www.pmi.org/learning/kaleidoscope-challenge-leading-complex-projects-5786.

Gareis, R. (2005). Happy projects! Vienna, Austria: Manz.

Project Management Institute. (2007). Project manager competency development (PMCD) framework – Second edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2014). Navigating complexity: A practice guide. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Schein, E. (1990). Organizational culture. American Psychologist. 45(2), 109–119.

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

© 2016, Simona Bonghez, Razvan Pop
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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