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Author: Lawrence Suda

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.

Project Success and Organizational Culture – Part 2

Understanding and assessing your organization’s culture can mean the difference between success and failure in today’s fast changing business environment.

Leaders typically have a view of their culture based on wishes than on a grounded, rational view. Understanding and then confronting the reality of an organization’s culture may not always be pleasant, but it is necessary. Very often what management pays attention to and rewards are often the strongest indicators of the organization’s culture. This is often quite different than the values it verbalizes or the ideals it strives for. Think for a minute about the culture you work in and imagine you were asked to describe your organization to an outsider. How would you answer the following questions:

  • What ten words would you use to describe your company?
  • Around here what’s really important?
  • Around here who gets promoted?
  • Around here what behaviors get rewarded?
  • Who fits in and who does not fit in?
  • Does management encourage or discourage innovation?
  • Do mavericks fit in or do they get pushed out? \
  • Does management reward employees for coming up with new ideas and challenging old ways of doing things?
  • Does the organization truly value excellence or is the mentality “just ship it”? Does management pay attention to the wellbeing of employees or is it completely focused on task and profits?

This kind of inquiry can give insight into the real culture of your organization and some of its underlying values and beliefs. It may not be what you think. Your organization’s culture is not the espoused values developed at an offsite meeting and posted on your website. These are ideals. What you strive to be and what you hope to endorse may be completely different from the values, beliefs, and norms expressed in your actual practice and behavior. It is critical that you awaken and find out who you really are as well as striving for whom you want to be. A good evaluation or assessment of where you are now can provide measurable data about the real organization’s values and beliefs. Individuals, groups, departments, projects, and organizations seldom fit one particular classification or pure type because they represent complex social systems and mixtures of many cultural patterns. Nevertheless, there are models that identify some systematic process that project and senior leaders can use to make sense of their environment. The one most compelling, elegant and robust used extensively by some very high profile firms is the model created by William Schneider. The rest of this paper will briefly describe Schneider’s model, an archetypal model that can be helpful for the project as well as senior leaders in understanding the different dimensions of culture.


The foundation of each of the four cultures rests on what each culture focuses on and how each makes decisions. Each culture is uniquely defined by the kind of input that is important to it and by the process it relies on to form judgments and make decisions. When viewed together, the four cultures reveal a number of underlying patterns (See Exhibit 1).

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Exhibit 1

The underlying pattern is illustrated by two axes that when combined with one another along two separate axes yield four component parts pf the table and represent the four core cultures. The vertical axis considers what an organization pays attention to or the content. The horizontal axis considers how an organization makes decisions, forms judgments or the process. The content axis is bounded by actuality and possibility; the process axis is bounded by impersonal and personal.

It is important to note that Schneider states “that the qualities and characteristics associated with the content and process axes are organizational and cultural preferences or central tendencies” and as such “are not exclusionary – having a preference for one does not preclude involvement in the other.” It does not mean that facts are all that an actuality organization deals with or that a possibility organization never attends to facts. One simply predominates or is central to how the firm works.

A brief description of each core culture is provided below.


This culture basically has its roots in teams, family, and affiliation and is all about synergy. It fundamentally exists to ensure unity and close connections with the customer. It pays a great deal of attention to concrete, tangible reality, actual experience and matters of practicality and utility. However, its decision-making process is people driven, organic and informal.

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CONTROL Core Culture

This culture is all about certainty and has its roots in a more militaristic model. It fundamentally exists to ensure certainty, predictability, safety, accuracy and dependability.

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This culture has its roots in religion and religious systems, meaningfulness, and self-actualization and is all about enrichment. It pays attention chiefly to potentiality, ideals and beliefs, aspirations and inspirations, and creative options. Its decision-making method is people driven, open-minded and subjective.

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This culture is very much fixed on achievement and gaining distinction on being the very best and or having the very finest/highest quality – a five-star rating. This is the culture of uniqueness, of one-of-a-kind products and/or services.

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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.