Project Management Institute

Cultural cues




At the “Googleplex” headquarters in Mountain View, California, USA, lava lamps and large rubber balls adorn the lobby. Employees eat lunch in the Google café. Communication takes high priority, and there's a strong emphasis on building an environment that prides the achievements of both teams and individuals. Even as a multimillion dollar giant, Google continues to grow while maintaining a small-office feel and an all-hands-on-deck mentality—just as the company's founders envisioned almost 10 years ago.

team followed through and made the culture shift. Today, 70 percent of its patients are seen within a half-hour.

It's all part of Google's corporate culture: the beliefs and values that make up the company's way of life. Every organization has one. It shapes decision-making patterns and influences behavior. Passed down from generation to generation, culture can be conveyed through its customs, symbols and value systems.

“Look at the white space in-between the boxes on an organizational chart. It's the culture that holds all that together,” says Lawrence Suda, CEO and managing partner of Palatine Group, a New York, New York, USA-based project management and business consulting firm.

Yet culture—and its impact on projects—isn't always readily apparent. “Sometimes employees aren't even cognizant of their corporate culture. They simply think, ‘We just do things a certain way,'” says Michel Thiry, PMP, PMI Fellow, managing partner at Valense Ltd., a global organizational consulting firm based in London, England.

That can be a big mistake.

Project managers must figure out where they fit in and “be mindful of what an organization does and how projects can impact that culture,” he says.


The more successful the organization is, the stronger the culture usually is. That certainly has its advantages. Just look at Google. But having a stronger culture may also mean an organization will resist change—and that puts it at a distinct disadvantage. “In today's world, you've got to be able to adapt,” Mr. Suda says.

Often, though, trying to change a culture “is like steering the Titanic,” Mr. Thiry says. The more attitudes and practices are culturally engrained, the more time is needed to change them.

Although project managers can't single-handedly shift a culture, they are in a position to help with the transformation, given that their role is to focus on a current business problem or opportunity, Mr. Suda says. To be effective, project managers need to determine how to best work within existing parameters and influence those things that need to be revised.


Sarasota Memorial Health Care System in Sarasota, Florida, USA, needed some serious help.

The hospital is one of the largest in its area, but it often had to operate “on diversion,” sending patients in need of urgent care to other hospitals in the region because it had exceeded capacity. “It's a pretty unsafe situation when the major hospital in the area is diverting,” says Judy Milne, executive director for patient safety and quality. The tactic also impacted the bottom line as the hospital was forced to turn down patients.

When Gwen MacKenzie arrived as the hospital's new CEO in 2005, she initiated a complete cultural overhaul to revitalize staff members and convince them to boost their service and efficiency levels. So a project was launched to improve patient flow. And Ms. MacKenzie upped the ante by implementing a guarantee: Anyone arriving in the emergency room would be seen by a physician or physician assistant within 30 minutes of arrival or receive a letter of apology from Ms. MacKenzie, plus tickets to area attractions.

The project depended on help and input from all staff. Doctors adjusted schedules to be on duty at peak times, while housekeeping staff made sure clean rooms were available as soon as possible.

Although Ms. MacKenzie had a similar policy in place when she worked at the Detroit Medical Center, in Detroit, Michigan, USA, staff members in Sarasota were skeptical at best. “People said, ‘We can't do it,'” Ms. Milne recalls.

In response, Ms. MacKenzie gave staff members the contact information for those at the Detroit Medical Center so they could gain insight into best practices and how the team made the policy work.

The Sarasota team followed through and made the culture shift. Today, 70 percent of its patients are seen within a half-hour.

With the project's success, the staff came to see that although some initiatives might initially seem to be a stretch, it isn't necessarily outside the realm of possibility. “It really is culturally transforming to say, ‘Let's shoot for this,'” Ms. Milne says. “It breaks the myths we all have about what we can't do.”

First, project managers should identify their organization's culture. Mr. Suda cites the model created by organizational psychologist William Schneider, Ph.D. It focuses on four core cultures:

Control: Emphasizes certainty, systems, predictability, efficiency, safety and accuracy

Competence: Focuses on being the best and having the best quality, or one-of-a-kind products and services

Collaboration: Emphasizes unity and affiliation, close connections with customers and a people-driven decision-making processes

Cultivation: Concentrates on customer enrichment, meaningfulness and self-actualization, with an emphasis on ideals, beliefs and creative options

Mr. Suda is quick to caution “there is no such thing as one ‘right' culture.” Instead, each type has its own strengths and weaknesses. That means organizations need to take time to look at what they do well and modify those processes that aren't effective.

To complicate matters, an organization's senior leaders might espouse one set of values, but it can be a different story in the trenches. Mr. Suda cites the example of Daniel Goldin, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's longtime administrator, who advocated doing work “faster, better, cheaper.” But to those lower down in the organization, the emphasis was put on “cheaper,” with less regard for “faster and better.”

“There can be misinformation coming down through the system,” Mr. Suda warns.


Even after a project manager has mastered the company's culture, they've still only scratched the surface. The various departments of an organization can develop their own subcultures as well. The personality of a marketing group, a research division or a small office in another part of the world can be quite different than that found in the headquarters. Like those in the core culture, the subcultures hire the people who best fit in, and they develop their own language, style and day-to-day activities.


Good project managers understand the social orientation within an organization and the relationships that develop over time.


“You need to tune into their values and belief systems, and speak their language,” Mr. Suda says.

And that peer pressure can be strong.

Individuals are most influenced by the people they work with on a daily basis, Mr. Thiry says, while “the organization's [core] culture will be remote.”

That can set up a culture clash, making it tough to work on projects that span multiple subcultures. For example, a company's IT department might be risk-averse, wanting to make sure the IT system is reliable and nothing can possibly go wrong. At the same time, the design department might be more willing to take on risk as it looks for cutting-edge programs and technology.

It's up to project managers to understand the dynamics of the various subcultures, and to recognize that what works in one area won't necessarily work in another.

Although they tend to be very task-oriented by nature, “good project managers understand the social orientation within an organization and the relationships that develop over time,” Mr. Suda says.

And that's what they call building cultural finesse. PM

This article is based on the paper, “The Meaning and Importance of Culture for Project Solutions,”presented by Lawrence Suda at the PMI Global Congress 2007—EMEA in Budapest, Hungary.

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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