An Invisible Constraint

Don't Overlook the Power of Organizational Culture, Here's How To Nurture a Positive Environment



By Karen Smits, PhD

New project management techniques and tools emerge every year, but underperformance remains. So how is it that when projects are a critical part of business, high levels of failure persist?

One of the main causes for project failure, according to my own research and that of others, is a lack of attention to organizational culture. Let me explain.

Each group we take part in is defined by unique cultural aspects. National culture is one, along with family, religion and profession. But every organization has a culture, too—comprising the company's norms, values and basic assumptions about acceptable or unacceptable behavior. It affects everything the organization does and can make or break your organization—or project.

Delivered by a network of stakeholders, often with conflicting interests, projects require powerful collaboration between organizations and professionals from different cultural groups. This involves sharing resources and aligning activities, which brings about a high degree of risk and the need for trust among participants. This can be difficult because stakeholders have their own idiosyncratic work practices, methodologies and beliefs stemming from the organizational culture to which they belong.

But project managers focused on scope, procedures and milestones often fail to understand that projects are a place where organizational cultures come together—and that cultural clashes can pose obstacles to collaboration.

How can such clashes be avoided? A starting point is recognizing the role cultural aspects such as stories, rituals, artifacts and power structures can play in improving project performance. Specific attention to intercultural collaboration enhances partners’ relationships. In practice, this entails putting interpersonal skills to work. As a project manager, your interpersonal skills are key to fostering intercultural collaboration to strengthen relationships and boost project performance.

Active listening, as much as judgment-free questioning, is an important ability for project managers aiming to build a high-performance intercultural team. On the other hand, don't be afraid to be a storyteller and share your own experiences and project expectations. You need to set the example, connecting people across cultural divides and leveraging cultural diversity to benefit the project. Organize cultural exchange events, for example, or introduce rituals to enhance team spirit and promote the organization's values and norms. Create celebration rituals to mark milestones reached, integration rituals to welcome new team members and transition rituals to move from one project phase to another. For an event to become a ritual, it needs to be repetitive, out of the ordinary and aimed at the community, not the individual. This is how a project culture gets built. PM

img Karen Smits, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist working at Practical Thinking Group in Singapore. She can be reached at [email protected].
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