Project Success and Organizational Culture – Part 1

The concept of organization culture has been with us now for many decades. Over these years, the influence of culture on organizations has been the focus of significant research and study, and for a good reason.

Culture shapes the organization’s decision patterns, guides actions, and drives the individual behavior of all members. In its most obvious form, it is “The way we do things around here to succeed.” Less visible, it encompasses the shared beliefs, norms, symbols, values, attitudes that permeate all parts of the organization. These enduring patterns help provided 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 culture is and is not and how it influences behavior in three parts. 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 their own behavior while working with dissimilar cultures. This knowledge can help project leaders become more effective and get the planned project results. In Part 2, we discuss 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. In Part 3, we offer some suggestions that can help project leaders understand their culture and that of others as 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 multi-dimensional. The same person placed in different organizations (or parts of the same organization) would act differently because a strongly 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 and Porras 1998) strong cultures endure and are a means by which organizations can strengthen their performance, adapt to change and to change 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’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 the culture from the current generation.

What Internal Forces Shape Culture? Linking Strategy, Culture, Leadership, and Performance

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

Vision, Mission, and Strategy

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.

Organizational Structure

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 the dominant values of the corporate culture.

Leadership Actions

Leadership actions communicate beliefs, values and assumptions and what is most important. A leader’s actions far outweigh newsletters, memos or policy manuals. Leadership 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

Human Resource 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 humanely 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 Measurements

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

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.

These elements listed above affect how people perceive the organization and how to behave within that organization.

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