Corporate Culture:
Project Managers’ blind spot

Over the last 20 years there has been much interest in the concept of corporate culture, mainly focused on what sorts of corporate cultures are most successful and how to change culture to improve business performance. After 17 years experience as a project manager, working in a wide range of organisations and industries, I’ve realised that corporate culture is rarely, if ever, discussed in a project context yet addressing it effectively is pivotal to success.

What is corporate culture? A definition I particularly like is this taken from Edgar H Schein’ book “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide”:

“Corporate culture is taken to be the beliefs, values, norms and traditions of an organisation which directly affect the behaviour of its members. Each organisation has its own unique culture and many businesses are conscious of this culture, which may be based on a sense of community or another fundamental driving force.”

The culture of an organisation is a direct driver of peoples' behaviour as they adapt to survive and prosper. Corporate culture applies subtle pressures, and any individual responds to these pressures by using tactics that benefit their own interests.  In a good culture, their interests and the interests of the business will be closely aligned, leading to a win-win situation.  Poor cultures result in conflicts between the individual and the business, adversely affecting any business change activity.

“Traditional” Western Businesses

 

"Standard" or best-practice

Us and Them – clear distinction between the “managers” and the “staff”

 

Equality – single status facilities, visible rewards for responsibility, not status. Everyone feels involved in the organisation’s success.

Fear/Blame culture - political atmosphere

 

Coaching/supportive culture. Open atmosphere. Hopeful

No leadership focus on change – focus is status quo. No time for continuous improvement

 

Visible and competent leadership of change. Clear strategy. Time for continuous improvement is built into the day

No vision or strategy communicated
Grapevine is main communications channel

 

Mission , vision and values published. Excellent top-down communications with feedback expected

No teamwork – competitiveness is between employees

 

Cohesive teams - competitiveness is aimed towards competitors

Focus is on urgent rather than important tasks. Short-termism, e.g. focus on share price

 

Focus is on important rather than urgent tasks. Goal is long-term strength growth and prosperity

We have always done it this way – we can’t start innovating now

 

Things are improving continuously: innovation is the norm

I’m nor sure we can do that attitude – risk averse

 

“Can do” attitude – Risk Managing

Autocratic control from top – feudal

 

Responsibility and authority delegated and accepted at all levels of the organisation – role orientated

Inward focus – status, size of team, positioning

 

Customer focus – service, performance, satisfaction

Staff turnover very low or very high

 

Staff turnover moderate

Declining market(share) – ultimate failure seen as inevitable (if noticed)

 

Growing market(share) – success is the normal expectation


Understanding corporate culture, the behaviours it engenders from individuals, and the steps that must be taken to align behaviour with the project, are critical for consistently successful business change. This is not such a problem if project managers are long-term employees, but the use of external project managers is spiralling up, and there is no time for them to learn the culture by immersion.

There has been much research into understanding and classifying corporate culture, but academic terms such as Individual versus collective , Power distance, Uncertainty avoidance , and Dominant values are hard to relate to business. At Dynamic Technologies, we have been carrying out a research programme to develop practical guidelines for project managers in recognising and dealing with corporate cultures. Based on our own experiences, and supplemented by interviews with leading business figures, we’ve defined 12 aspects of corporate culture that capture the main characteristics of organisations. These aspects each have a spectrum of degree.  The extremes of the aspects neatly group together, so one set of extremes are often found together in traditional Western businesses (Dickens would have been familiar with them), whereas the other set of extremes are often proclaimed as the standard that organisations should aim.

When we started our research, we thought that the Traditional model was "Bad" and that the Standard model was "Good", as that seems to be the published wisdom.  However, we have found that some very successful organisations have cultural aspects that are “Traditional”.  We have also found that there are problems commonly associated with the “Standard model” too, so there is no absolute good and bad in corporate culture.  What is critical is that the culture is identified and understood, from which likely problems can be forecast and addressed before they become real issues leading to project failure.

We are analysing all common problems (and some of the rarer challenges too) associated with each aspect of corporate culture to provide a practical guide to successful business change over the next 12 months or so, which we plan to publish as a handbook. The results so far show a consistent pattern emerging across different business sectors and sizes of organisations, which bodes well for the book’s general usefulness.

Though we’ve had input from many individuals so far, we still need both personal insights and case studies if you'd like to contribute, please contact us.

About the author
Andrew Wright is Services Director of Dynamic Technologies Ltd. He has previously held senior project management posts in ICL, Ferranti, PA Consulting and Centrica. Andrew can be contacted at or on 07884 383 668

Dynamic Technologies Ltd is a specialist project management consultancy providing services to a wide range of clients.