3 June, 2024

Positive Project Culture: What is it? A Roadmap for Success

Project culture is a subtle idea. Perhaps it is even a little abstract. So you may ask, fairly:

‘What has it got to do with getting the job done?’

Delivery is the job of a Project Manager: not management theory, you might argue.

Well, that’s true. But Project Culture has everything to do with delivery and getting the job done.

So we’ve invited Andy Kaufman PMP, project manager, author, trainer, and academic, to share his thoughts with us.

Positive Project Culture: What is it? A Roadmap for Success

Andy Kaufman on Project Culture

Andy is a good friend of OnlinePMCourses and has appeared in a number of our videos. As founder of the People and Projects Podcast, though, he is uniquely well qualified to reflect on Project Culture:

  • what it is,
  • why it matters, and
  • how to craft it

So, in this article, Andy looks at:

So, let me hand over to Andy now, to introduce you to Maria…

‘You can hit this date, right?’

That was Maria. She’s one of your stakeholders from the other side of the business. And she wants you to commit to delivering your project by a specific date.

You know the date is ‘ambitious’. But the way she’s asking makes it clear that she will only accept one answer: ‘Yes’.

You pause.

‘Sure!’ is the word that slips out of your mouth. But if she could read your mind, she wouldn’t be walking away so confidently.  And now you’re left with that sick feeling in your stomach, and your mind wondering: ‘How in the world are we going to do this?’

You spend a day ruminating about your project. And then, you realize you need something from her to deliver on the promised date. Your eyes brighten!

She probably won’t be able to deliver on her part. And that will give you some wiggle room! Brilliant!

You call her.

‘Hi Maria. You know that project we talked about yesterday? Well, to hit that date, this is what I need from you.’ You elaborate on the needs.

It’s time to go for the ask:

‘I’ll need it by the end of next week. Can you get that to me on time?’ You pause, hoping for a ‘No’.

Maria pauses.

‘Um. Well, let’s see. Yes, I can. Sure!’


Promises, Promises

Can you relate to the discussion with Maria?

Perhaps you work with somebody like Maria. They press you with deadlines but often don’t give you the information you need, to deliver your project. Or maybe you’ve been in Maria’s role, getting promises from project managers who know they can’t deliver.

It’s important to know that you’re not alone.

This drama plays out in organizations around the world, and across industries. I recently had a conversation with a high-level executive at a biotech firm. The discussion turned to how promises get made to investors and senior executives. He told me,

‘We make these date commitments but everyone knows we won’t hit them.’

I replied, ‘Kind of like mass hallucination, eh?’ He smiled, but not with his eyes.

A lot of this comes down to Project Culture…

Project Culture

It is critical for you and your organization to develop a culture that delivers. Relying on crossed fingers, hope, good intentions, and heroics doesn’t scale. You need to ingrain the fundamentals of delivery into your culture.

This works at two levels:

  1. The wider organizational project culture is ‘the way projects are done around here.’
  2. The more local project culture is ‘the way we do things on this project.’

Both are important. But as a project manager, you probably won’t have a lot of influence over the organizational level. What you can – and must – influence, is the culture of your project.

Often, though, if one part of an organization does well, other people try to emulate it. Don’t think for one moment that one individual cannot change an organization’s culture. But, it may just take time.

So, let’s start by understanding organizational project culture.

Organizational Project Culture

It’s rather fashionable these days to talk about organizational culture. Let me be clear: your organization also has a culture of project management. It’s just a matter of whether that culture is helping or hindering your ability to deliver.

Yoda on Corporate Culture

Dr. Edgar Schein is Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He’s widely credited with coining the term organizational culture. When I set up the interview to talk with Dr. Schein, I didn’t realize what a superstar the guy is.

Edgar Schein on Culture


Edgar Schein is a social psychologist. He has introduced loads of ideas around organizational culture. His thinking is at the heart of the subject.

Schein sees culture as the dominant force within an organization. He defines it as a pattern of shared assumptions, about:

  • how we relate to one another
  • how we perceive truth and reality
  • the balance of task focus with growth and fulfillment
  • and more

These assumptions affect the values and social norms that evolve. Consequently, they influence how people behave.

Schein documented his primary thinking in his best-known book, Organizational Culture and Leadership. Originally published in 1985, it is now in its fourth edition (US|UK). He suggested people can make three responses to the pressures of a prevailing culture.

  • Rebellion: Rejection of the organization’s imposed norms and culture.
  • Creative Individualism: Selective adoption of certain values and norms.
  • Conformity: Full acceptance of the new culture.

Listen to the interview with Dr. Edgar Schein at http://www.PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/25

It didn’t take long in the interview for me to feel like I was talking with Yoda! He responded with ease to my questions about culture.

What is culture, according to Dr. Schein?

In short, it’s what has worked. He uses the phrase ‘how we do things around here’.

So culture is the sum of everything a group has learned that works in solving problems. Whether you like it or not, the project culture in your organization exists for one reason. It has worked well enough in the past.

Dr. Schein suggests we can break culture down into three levels:

  1. Artifacts: What you can see when you look around you
  2. Espoused values: The things you’ll hear people saying.
  3. Tacit assumptions: the assumptions we make about how we should do thing

Artifacts of Project Culture: What You Can See

What do you see when you walk through an organization? You see:

  • the architecture of the building
  • the layout of the workspaces
  • the technology they provide for their employees
  • the signs on the walls

These are artifacts—things you can see.

Project Artifacts

It is very much the same in your project. You might see:

  • Methodology binders
  • Organization charts
  • Process diagrams
  • Computer systems to manage project data.

You could follow a project manager around and see their behavior — the actions they take. All these help define the culture.

This is the level that is easiest to change. It is relatively easy to introduce new tools, systems, and procedures. What people think and say about them, though…

Espoused Values: What We Say

Continue walking through the organization. Now you’re starting to wonder why they do certain things. You can read how a standard operating procedure is documented (the artifact). But why do they do it that way? These are examples of espoused values. They are the stated beliefs that give life to what people value in the organization.

For example, let’s say you find a form people need to fill out. It seems like an unnecessary step in a process. So, you ask, ‘Why do your project managers have to fill out this form?’

And maybe you get the response:

‘Because we’ve found that the extra step helps to make sure we don’t start projects without a business rationale. A couple of years back, we were wasting too much money on different executives’ pet projects.’

There it is: culture as ‘what has worked’. This level is harder to change. People need to gain new experiences, and that takes time. But it gets worse, because sometimes something stands in the way of people trying new things…

Tacit Assumptions: What We Assume

Beyond what we see and what people say, lie the assumptions they make. Underlying assumptions drive what we do and how things get done in an organization. They are not even stated — just assumed — as if they are obviously a fact; a matter of axiomatic truth.

Components of Culture

The Three Components of Organizational Culture

All these factors are like an iceberg. Above the water, we can see the artifacts and discuss beliefs and values. But below the water, we have the underlying assumptions. As with icebergs, these remain unseen and yet can be deadly, if not considered.

Let’s say your executive team regularly sends emails late into the evening. Others might assume that such activity is expected from everyone.

But there’s not a policy in writing (artifact) that directs people to do so. If you asked HR if employees need to be on email until midnight, they would find no such policy. Yet there’s an underlying assumption of the expectation. This leads to overflowing inboxes and red, baggy-eyed staff. Before you know it, a culture of long hours evolves.

Written Rules and Unwritten Rules

There are written rules and unwritten rules. When you think about culture, artifacts and espoused values are the written rules. They are visible to everyone, like the part of an iceberg above the water.

The underlying assumptions are the unwritten rules. Where an iceberg goes is dictated by ocean currents, not the wind. Tacit assumptions are drivers we cannot see. They lie under the water, and drive everything above it.

More about Organizational Culture

Note from Mike: Our sister YouTube Channel, Management Courses, has a whole playlist on the nature of Organizations, with six videos on Organizational Culture. The easiest place to view these is on the Management Courses website.

Changing Your Project Culture

You may not be able to change the culture of projects in your organization. But you can change the culture of your project.

So let’s see what we can learn.

How Not To Attempt Culture Change

It’s one thing to know about the components of culture, but leaders want to know how to change it. Here’s an example of what not to do.

Shortly after I interviewed Dr. Schein, the COO of a Fortune 150 company called me to set up a meeting. We met in his spacious, wood-paneled office, with a whiteboard filled with the scribbles from past meetings. He laid out the current state of his organization and then he asked:

‘Andy, I’d like to hire you as a consultant to help change the culture of our organization.’

We continued the conversation for a while, with me ending with a promise to get back to him by the end of the week.

Calling Dr Schein

My next step? I called Dr. Schein! We talked about the opportunity and here was his simple advice: ‘Run!’

He elaborated. A consultant is not going to be able to change an organization’s culture from outside. If the COO is incapable of doing this on his own, any attempts from the outside will be a waste of time and money.

Thanks to Dr. Schein’s advice, I politely declined the opportunity. Instead, I encouraged the COO with ideas for how he could proceed with his internal leadership team.

I share that story as a recommendation to you. Don’t outsource culture change to consultants, contractors, or anyone else. Culture change needs leadership. And leadership is your job. You need to own your project culture.

Where to Start With Culture Change

In the discussions with Dr. Schein, one point was clear. Until behavior changes, you haven’t changed the culture. So, it doesn’t matter how many meetings you lead or what posters you put on the wall. What matters is that behaviors change.

With that in mind, start small. Overly ambitious culture change initiatives will die a painful death. Changing the culture of your project is ideal in that sense. Not least because projects start anew each time. So, you have a chance to create the project culture you want, from Day 1.

Start Small

Start culture change by identifying one or, at most, two existing behaviors you want to target. Clearly identify the new behaviors you want to drive.

Perhaps you’re frustrated by the re-work that plagues projects. After analysis, you realize your risk management process is at fault. Risk identification, analysis, and response planning is done haphazardly, if at all. The behavior change you want is for your team to follow a risk management process consistently.

Once you’ve identified the behavior you want to see, treat the culture change initiative as a project. Projects without executive sponsorship tend to struggle. So, make sure you have the support of your management. Once that’s in place, put together a plan just as you would if this were any other project.

In the spirit of starting small, pilot the behaviors on a smaller project. Remember, culture is ‘what works’. Create some wins by showing that these new behaviors help the pilot project deliver successfully.

Slowly, over time, you can change the culture as people see that the new behaviors work.

Simple Levers for the Project Culture You Want

Here are some simple things that can affect the tacit assumptions about your project. Things like:

  • What the project is
  • Why it matters
  • What are the right ways to do things

Don’t treat any of these ideas as a silver bullet. Rather, treat each as one ingredient of a mixed strategy. If you put together the right set of ingredients, and you select them with care, you can make a big impact.

  • The project’s name
  • A slogan or tagline
  • A project logo
  • Terminology and language
  • The toolset you select
  • Regular events
  • Social rituals or habits

Taking the Next Step

Conversations like the ones with Maria are frustrating. You can’t sustain a culture of mass hallucination. Hope is a wonderful thing for humanity but it’s a lousy strategy for delivering projects. Start with diagnosing your current culture.

You have the opportunity to improve the project culture of your organization. Start by taking time to deeply understand your current culture. Identify the written and unwritten rules. Target specific behaviors to change and get buy-in from your leadership. Pilot the new behaviors so you can demonstrate that they work.

Andy and Mike would Love to Hear from You

What questions do you have? What lessons have you learned about leading culture change?  Please do share your observations and questions in the comments below. We’ll respond to every comment we get.

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Andy Kaufman

About the Author...

Andy Kaufman helps organizations around the world improve their ability to deliver projects and lead teams. He is a project manager, a keynote speaker and author, and delivers project management training in Chicago, North America, and around the world. Andy runs the exceptional http://www.peopleandprojectspodcast.com website.
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