Project culture

a paradigm shift in project management

Gervase Haimes, BAppSc, MPM, MAIPM, MAACEI, Lecturer (Project and Construction Management),
Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia

Project management is now, more than ever before, being widely recognized as a suitable strategic option by which organizations can successfully deliver their corporate objectives. Its history is in the male dominated regimes of the defense forces, engineering and construction of the mid to late twentieth century with their emphasis on the processes. These regimes are gradually being usurped by personnel of both genders in a wide variety of industries, new to project management, that recognize its application and effectiveness for achieving organizational objectives with the emphasis on people.

Project management should now be focused more on the ability and performance of the project team and less on the processes required for its execution. The strength of the team's performance is closely linked to their organizational culture. Project management and organizations with strong cultures pay more attention to their people, stakeholders, and their values and beliefs as well as the goals and objectives of their organization. The challenge is to embrace the benefits of organizational culture that result from a long-term development, into projects, which are relatively short term.

Organizational culture has been identified as a means by which all management organizations including projects can strengthen their performance, adapt to change and changing environments while increasing their chances of survival and maintaining their competitive performance (Collins and Porras 1998).

Organizational Culture and Strategy

Central to the idea I am presenting is that a strong project culture is vital to a project's success and that project organizations perform to their best ability and enjoy a certain level of performance and degree of success based on strategies that are developed from having appropriate cultures. Therefore, it is necessary to establish the links and relationships indicated in my theoretical model at Exhibit 1, between culture and performance.

The relationship between culture and performance is manifested through the strategies, organizational designs, and organizational structures such as a project management organization, all of which are developed as a result of the culture. Strategy is critical to any organization because of ever-changing competitive challenges whatever their field of endeavor (Brown 1998). They respond to those challenges by changing strategy or adopting new strategies, to manage the new challenges as they present themselves. However, organizations have discovered that it can be difficult to implement project management as a strategy because it requires their workforce to adopt different values, assumptions and/or ways of doing things that are too diverse from their current practices. This is because the values and assumptions that they are being asked to change are the product of their past successes (Schein 1992). Hence, culture is a fundamental element of implementing a strategy and therefore, projects and project management.

In essence, project management is adopted as a strategy by an organization identifying its threats and opportunities within the project environment and formulating a response to them based upon its strengths and weaknesses. Project management is then implemented through a series of processes we know as PMBOK® (1996; 2000). The influence of culture upon the development of that project management strategy manifests itself in at least six distinct ways because the project team will interpret the project environment based on their own values and assumptions (Brown 1998):

1. The culture of the project team will influence how it perceives the project environment and the data it gains from it, such as stakeholders and their role in the project. This is essentially the project team identifying the threats and opportunities as well as their own strengths and weaknesses;

Exhibit 1. Culture/Performance Relationship

Culture/Performance Relationship

2. The values and assumptions of project teams act as filters, focusing attention on particular areas and away from others, thereby biasing what strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats upon which the team focuses. For example, environmental lobbyists are given attention not commensurate with their influence.

3. Members of the project team will interpret and use different methods of interpretation, any information gained from the project environment in a particular way that suits its own culture. Construction project teams for example may interpret threats, causes and effects differently to an IT project team.

4. Once the project team has interpreted data from its environment it then has to decide how it should respond to that data. This can often involve moral and ethical issues. How the team responds on such issues will be based on its values.

5. Its response will also be closely aligned with past successes. The response adopted is likely to be a result of previous success from a similar response. Equally other responses maybe ignored because they have failed in the past.

6. Subcultures within the project team will also influence the choice of response. Often a project team and its subculture(s) agree on a situation but the various subcultures will offer different means of resolving it. The different subcultures will provide a microanalysis of the macro problem that is; they will see the problem according to their own organizational subculture. Other issues such as power and influence within the organization also have a role in how well regarded the particular subculture is. This manifestation is particularly prevalent in project management organizations because of the intellect, power and influence that a large number of the team have as a result of the expertise in specialist area of project management.

7. Therefore, the culture/performance relationship, deep-seated within project teams, is a determinant upon which the project team will be judged to be effective. Schein (1999) explains that for an organization to perform effectively and thereby be successful, it has to fulfill what its environment requires, or allows, of it. That is, project teams need a culture that suits their environment to elicit appropriate strategic responses that will be successful because the team will then perform within the restrictions (and regulations if applicable) of the project environment. The project team should also use and explore the environment to its full extent and interpretation.

When discussing effective project performance and success it is important to realize that the concepts are relative to who wants to know how the project is performing and how the performance is measured (Brown 1998). The second question is answered dependant upon the answer to the first question; that is, when you know who is asking you can anticipate how the performance will be measured. The reality is that any project has a large number of stakeholders interested in its performance and whilst some of the stakeholders will have overlapping interests, each group of stakeholders will have its own measure. For example, environmental assessments may be seen as effective to the project team but the environmental lobbyists may see it differently.

Culture in New Projects

An issue particular to organizations new to implementing projects and temporary organizations, such as project organizations, is the difficulty developing their culture at the same time that they are establishing their organization. They do not yet know “the way things are done around here.” In such cases the implementation of a strategy can prove difficult because the project team members have not yet learned what or how they should do things. That is, they have not yet developed their values and basic underlying assumptions. Having established that culture influences strategy; how do you develop a strong culture in a project organization? The answer broadly speaking is to look to your leadership.

Projects like other organizations look to their leaders, that is the project managers, for the vision and perception of the need for new, or particular strategies and to create the right internal environment to enable them to be adopted (Collins and Porras 1998; Schein 1992). Hence, culture and project management, as a strategy, share common elements in that they both help create a direction and consistent order in organizational life based upon past experiences. Some suggest that culture and strategy are inseparable (Weick 1985; Deal & Kennedy 2000). Brown (1998) makes the distinction, saying that a strategy in the case of project management should be viewed as the long term plans that senior executives make to meet the challenges of the external environment to meet organizational objectives.

Organizational (Corporate) Culture

With the understanding of how culture influences project management it is useful to expound the principles of organizational culture. By so doing one gains an understanding of how project teams develop and are, or should be, selected based on our organizational culture.

Culture has been of interest to anthropologists for more than a century but it was only since the 1980s that management scholars have widely adopted the concept (Pettigrew 1979; Hofstede 1980; Smircich 1983; Frost et al. 1985; Schein 1985). Amongst them was a pair of writers that suggested a link between the culture of an organization and the degree of success it enjoys (Peters & Waterman 1982). This is now regarded as too simplistic and it has been recognized that organizational culture, despite some popular literature suggesting otherwise, is by no means simple to comprehend Organizational culture is not just about people and it is not just “the way we do things around here.” Culture is the property of groups that have common experiences from small teams or workgroups to entire industries and it exists at several levels from the intangible and subconscious to its tangible and substantial elements (Brown 1998; Schein 1999).

Schein stands out as a theorist in the area of Organizational Culture because he articulated an analysis of cultures within an organizational framework. Schein recognized the levels at which a culture exists and how it can be analyzed and developed a model of organizational culture (Exhibit 2) showing the three levels of culture that interact within a hierarchy (Schein 1992). The three levels are Artifacts, Espoused Values, and Basic Underlying Assumptions.


Artifacts are the top, or surface, level of the project organization and represent the visible manifestations of the project's culture. They may perhaps, be seen as a declaration of the culture of the organization. Elements such as the project aims and objectives, the project plan, the project product, the offices, jargon or language, physical environment, and other visible representations of the project, are all artifacts.

Espoused Values

Espoused values are the values that perhaps only one person holds initially, about the way to solve a problem and that person puts them forward as a solution or strategy to solve a particular problem that the project has to overcome. For example, a project manager finds that holding a weekend retreat for project staff is the best way to quickly and effectively build teamwork. That is her espoused value; it has worked for her in the past. When the others in the group agree to a similar action for their project and see for themselves that it does work, it becomes a shared value. If it continues to be successful, it is likely to become an underlying assumption.

Basic Underlying Assumptions

Basic underlying assumptions are those assumptions that people in the organization make about how they should go about managing themselves in their internal and external environments. They are based on proven techniques to complete tasks that have worked so well that people no longer even question them as the correct techniques. In other words it is “the way we do things around here.” The two-way flow shown by the arrows in the diagram between the levels of culture represents how values become assumptions and conversely how assumptions must change for values to change. That is, in the case of our example teamwork needs improving so the project manager organizes a retreat automatically without going through a particular process to determine if that is the best strategy. Schein describes this as cognitive transformation (Schein 1992).


Change within the project team to implement a new direction (as against the change process that the project itself brings about) is achieved by changing the basic underlying assumptions, which are the root of organizational culture. They dictate the way people address issues, subconsciously knowing that doing so in a particular fashion is a proven method by virtue of its success. To now ask or expect those organizational members to undertake tasks in a different way is asking them to concede they may have been doing the task the wrong way all along. Changing the basic underlying assumptions is done through subcultures.

Exhibit 2.The Levels of Organizational Culture (Source: Schein 1992: 17)

The Levels of Organizational Culture (Source: Schein 1992:17)

Schein identified three subcultural groups within organizations known as the “Operators,” the “Engineers,” and the “Executives” that have a role in changing assumptions (Schein 1996: 235). These hierarchical subcultures operate silently within organizations and the inbuilt conflict between them has to be resolved for the project to be capable of change. Subcultures are formed because of personal interactions that require physical closeness among people who see each other as similar because of similar reporting relationships, shared facilities or task inter-dependencies (Hatch 1993).

For projects to effectively manage the change they bring about and the change within them it is necessary to investigate “the way they do things” and how they may be changed. Implementation of change to a project's culture comes about when the project recognizes the need for change and they will implement it in one of two ways. They may change strategic policies to change the direction of the project, or they may change personnel to force the change. Miller (1998), like Schein, advocates the former since diversity within the workforce is important to a project. The suggestion is that it is better to keep the personnel and incorporate diversity than to exclude diversity by removing personnel that do not suit. This goes to the center of Collins and Porras (1998) identification of cult like cultures and appears to contradict the Hewlett Packard approach, which is often cited as a model for organizational culture.

Organizational Culture Strength and Fit

The implication in the relationships between culture and strategy and culture and performance, is that the culture has a positive impact on strategy and thereby, performance when a culture is strong. The strength of the culture in turn helps it fit to the club and for the club to develop the most suitable strategies to fit their operational, regulated environment. Therefore, as well as the determination of culture through an organization's artifacts, values and assumptions, the strength of culture and its fit for the environment in which organizations operate, are also of interest. Two important measures of cultural strength are (1) the wide knowledge of stories, myths, and legends about the organization, and (2) the dissemination of organizational values across all members of the organization. Schein (1992) noted the significance of the strength of the culture, but put equal emphasis on its fit within the environment as expressed through the espoused values. The principle argument is that a strong culture may exist in an organization but if it is totally inappropriate then it may have little or no effect.

Conclusion for Organizational Culture and Projects

This paper has discussed some of the issues and problems of project culture and how it may be implemented. What can we do to overcome some of these? Projects are ephemeral in their nature in terms of organizations and making use of their organizational culture. Cleland (1999) identifies how to manage the project team in order to generate the right culture for a project:

• Keep the team informed

• Promote the concept of idea sharing

• Encourage social interaction (but don't intrude on the employee's own time)

• Cultivate informality—first name terms or nicknames

• Remove or limit hierarchical frameworks and behavior

• Promote team leaders as mentors and facilitators

• Keep the team informed of competitors threats

• Create sense of urgency and importance of the project

• Reduce formalities between team members.

These are all valid points to address that are consistent with the points made so far but they are relevant only when you have a team in place and if you have the time to devote to them in the intense environments in which projects invariably exist. McDonald (Undated) makes this point that projects are by their nature short term, intense endeavors that shortens the time available for the natural development of a culture. In her particular circumstances of the Los Angeles Olympics, the project team was force-fed anything and everything to assist and speed up the development of their common values and identity.

What is required is to some degree is dependant upon the type of project organization. If the team is brought together for a one off project after which they will be disbanded and not expected to work together again the McDonald approach has some merit. However, if you are within a project based organization it is necessary to go back further in the process to the appointment of the team and get the planning right to avoid pitfalls during implementation. Project managers have to take a similar approach as organizations like Hewlett Packard to assembling their project team. They have to ensure that the team they put together has the same correct fit with the culture and environment of the project as Hewlett Packard's employees have with their employer. In so doing they will identify and utilize team members that are willing to conform and will ultimately but more importantly, quickly, develop shared beliefs in the core ideology of the project.

What this approach requires is for project managers to take the time to plan their team development. In particular adopt the Stakeholder Management process to their project team selection. The project team is a stakeholder and must receive the due and proper attention that all stakeholders merit. The project manager can exercise complete control over how the team is appointed and composed. Too often project managers appoint their own team with disregard for standard project management practices. In appointing contractors many evaluation exercises are adopted to ensure due diligence, value for money, risk strategies and the contractor's competency. Yet, when it comes to his or her own team the project manager places little emphasis on identifying the individuals that form it and will be responsible for the proper functioning of the team. Project managers must put together a team to manage the project where they know the capabilities and cultural fit for the project of each and every team member. Strong project culture will only be achieved through people that fit with the project environment and the project's core ideology.

Project managers must recognize their leadership role and that they are responsible for imparting and developing a culture to suit the project environment. The culture must be widely disseminated among the project team as Cleland's points imply and emphasize. Not doing so would mean that it could be in conflict with the many alternative values or subcultures within a project team and the ideology behind the culture would be weakened. Projects need to develop their own introductory and/or induction courses where new team members are introduced to the project, its purpose and how it operates. McDonald suggests this was useful in her experience and team members were subsequently able to identify what was important and what was less so. However, it is an opportunity to disseminate and reinforce the project's goals and objectives (which should be the team's shared values) whilst leaving team members to determine the best way that these can be accomplished. This makes the team members responsible for achieving their own targets and ensures that people responsible for delivering the project have input into its operation.

The main criterion is the project manager does things how he or she wants them to be done and ensures the recruitment of the right people capable of doing them in the desired way. In other words the project manager must look to the core ideology and purpose of the project and ensure, by recruiting the correct team that they have a strong corporate culture that fits closely with the project environment. Projects are a key strategy in delivering organizational objectives and projects within an organization; e.g., Hewlett Packard can be ongoing. By adhering to the project core values the performance of the project team is a derivative of a strong ideology and culture. Projects that put its people first will attract the best team for the available positions.

Finally, I started with reference to the gender imbalance in project management. It is only my opinion at this stage but I believe as more and more women are attracted to project management as a discipline so the discipline will gain from what I believe will be a less ego centric approach and an approach concerned with getting results rather than fighting about who is responsible. Their approach will encourage a true team approach, a strong team culture and ultimately a strong team performance. A strong team performance will contribute to the success of the project because the team is working together with shared values aimed at meeting the project objectives. That is, an underlying strong project culture contributes to the project's organizational performance and the project's success.

“Leaders die, products become obsolete, markets change, new technologies emerge, management fads come and go; but core ideology in a great company endures as a source of guidance and inspiration” (Collins & Porras 1998: 221).


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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville,Tenn.,USA



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