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Project Success and Organizational Culture – Part 3

Just as the organization transmits its values and beliefs to its members, the project leader also creates a team culture by transmitting values and beliefs to the team members.

This process is aimed at developing project goals and objectives, group norms (how the decision will be made, how we will resolve conflicts, build trust, and actively listening and communicate). Project leaders can help the project team develop and reach high-performance levels in a number of ways.

One way is to protect the team, particularly in situations when there is a more dominate base organizational culture that may interfere with accomplishing the project’s mission. Another way a project leader can help build team effectiveness is by understanding and directly communicating the base organization beliefs and values to the project team. Providing the team with insights about potential conflicting values can help team members develop strategies to overcome potential problems. Consider a project leader who leads an exceedingly high competence core culture project team while the base organization’s core culture is an extremely collaboration core culture. The project team’s competitive behavior is very likely in direct opposition to the behaviors endorsed by the base organization. While the project leader fosters individual achievement and accomplishment, these values are incongruent with base organization’s values of cooperation and collaboration. The team will run the risk of confrontation and resistance from the base organization if they are not involved in critical project decisions. It is the project leader’s responsibility to promote a better working relationship with the base organization. The project leader must ensure the project team understands the nature and strengths of the base organization culture and develop a healthy balance between the two distinct cultures. Understanding the organizational elements and how each perceives the “way to success,” approaches tasks, relates to one another, and their particular management and leadership styles are key matters to help the project team reach high performance.

Differences in the assumptions and beliefs of each core culture and “how we do things around here to succeed,” have profound implications for the successful projects. Appreciating the values and beliefs of the base organization can help the project leader understand how to adapt his behavior and develop more effective approaches to make the project successful.

Implications for the Project Leader

Projects often have a profound impact on the organization and the people within it. Projects transform all or parts of an organization and by their very nature create change to the base organization or individual departments. Projects usually involve the design and development of a new physical product or service that may contain complex technical elements. The problem most common in a project is to concentrate and emphasize the technical content at the expense of understanding its impact on the people (users) and the organization. An important characteristic of project work is the extent to which people who will use the product are invited to participate in the work. Very often the work is done by a specialist without the cooperation, participation, and commitment of the end users.

Project leaders must be able to interact with various sub-cultural elements within their organization and that of the customer and often simultaneously. Leaders who are aware of cultural differences can avoid or minimize unproductive conflicts and misunderstandings. Differences may arise for various reasons including, values, assumptions, and beliefs and arise from problems communicating across cultures. The nature of communication in research and development is very different from the language spoken in marketing. It is important for the leader to make a concerted effort to speak and listen in ways that take these differences into account. An obstinate, hasty loom that attributes project barriers to another person’s inflexibility or stubbornness may polarize differences, escalate the conflict and make it very difficult or next to impossible to complete the project.

Projects have a higher probability of succeeding when they:

  • Start with the premise that organizations are living social systems.
  • Assess, identify, work with and align with the organization’s core culture.
  • Are designed on the front end from a system focused perspective and implemented in a manner congruent with that design.
  • Are clearly tied to the organization’s strategy
  • Aligned with strategy, culture, and leadership
  • Understand that all organizations have a lead core culture and subcultures and the key is that the project culture must function in service of the organization’s core or lead culture.


The purpose of this article was to demonstrate that project teams and organizations have unique personalities, value systems, and way they do things to succeed. The more a project leader understands the concept of culture, the more effective he will be in gaining support and guiding the project through the myriad of organization mazes.

Project leaders often engage in transactions with several different cultures simultaneously. Project leaders typically work within their own base organization core culture, with the subcultures of other departments (research and development, marketing and sales or manufacturing – each with their own inherent “ways of doing things around here to succeed”) or working with external customers and their core culture. Understanding and speaking the language of the immediate culture is critical for project success. Effectively communicating with the surrounding culture can help develop plans, strategies that are more likely recognized and time-honored, by bypassing practices that violate the beliefs and values of the client organization.

Project leaders have many opportunities to create and shape a project culture in purposeful ways, but that culture must be in alignment with the organization’s lead culture. This is an important part of project team development and a healthy team climate and stage setting to ensure project success.

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