Organisational Culture and Project Implementation

By William Leung (last updated: 05-Jun-2012)


There is a whole world of methodologies and best-practises that have been proposed and developed on the management of projects to help ensures that projects are implemented successfully – that the outcomes of projects are exactly as prescribed before implementation took place. There is no doubt projects would have better chances of success if proper processes, management information, communication and documentation are in place to provide managers, implementers and stakeholders the required information, when needed, in order to carry out their tasks more effectively. This article do not intend to challenge the use of structured methodologies such as PRINCE 2 [ PRINCE2: A brief overview (Part I) ] or PMI, but to let it be known that factors, other than structured processes & procedures, play a equally (if not more) vital role on projects; and consequently other tools can be utilised to ensure successful project implementation.

This article will primarily focus on ‘the organisation’, or ‘the project team’ that is responsible for carrying out the project implementation tasks. From our experience, we observed the importance of stakeholders’ (directly or indirectly) full-participation and commitment to the outcome of projects; and in almost all instances, projects stand a much better chance to succeed if stakeholders’ participation and commitment are high.

The level of participation and commitment from stakeholders are just as important long after projects have completed and closed – Under-utilised systems (or processes) are as good as systems (processes) not implemented. The remaining of this article will identify and discuss a number of management issues surrounding project implementation and explore several ways in which project deliveries can be improved, through improved organisation culture.

A quick word on Project Implementation

This article assumes that our readers are aware of what a project is and what project implementation encompasses. PRINCE2 defines a project (Office of Government Commerce, 2005) as a management environment that is created for the purposes of delivering one or more business products according to a specified Business Case. And in a more user-friendly definition (Office of Government Commerce, 2005): a temporary organisation that is needed to produce a unique and predefined outcome or result at a pre-specified time using predetermined resources. In other words, a project is deemed successful, if and only if, it delivers on its promises (or end-state), using precisely the amount of time and resources (people, materials, tools, funds, etc). Projects that delivered promises using less (more but with small tolerance) time or resources can still be considered successful (Although this may be attributed to over-budgeting).

Again taking a simplistic view, project implementation can be thought to comprise of all subsequent steps taken by the project organisation, after its initial kick-off, to ensure that the project delivers on its promises, or predefined outcomes. These steps can include the forming of the project team, information gathering, planning, performing of creation actions, testing, reviewing, signoff, disbanding of project team, etc.

What is Organisation Culture?

Organisation culture is a pattern of basic assumptions – invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with 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 (N Phillips, 2007). Organisation culture deals with the factors that ensure alignment between organisation objectives and those of its employee’s. When organisation culture is right, it can achieve the following:

  • Provides an external identity
  • Creates a sense of commitment
  • Acts as source of high reliability
  • Defines an interpretive scheme
  • Acts as a social control mechanism without formal rules

The more relevant advantages for utilising organisation culture in project implementation context are to enact commitment and reliability from groups & individuals within the organisation; and perhaps the unintended (but desirable) consequence of a social control mechanism without the presence of rules. This last point is the result of a culture so strong amongst those who are part of it that, they themselves would enforce behaviours that are deemed consistent with their culture. The task for managers and project owners therefore is to build a strong organisation culture with desirable goals & properties then align individual goals to those of the project organisation through Cultural Reinforcement [see relevant section under Cultural Reinforcement].

There are numerous methodologies (PMBOK, PRINCE 2 and ITIL to name just a few) being used in the market that take aim at formalising & structuralising the way in which projects are delivered and how services should be maintained optimally and consistently. Roles such as project managers and service managers are created within organisations primarily to ensure the integrity of project implementation and service delivery are kept amid ever changing external (and internal) environment factors. The common theme for the use of established methodologies and managing roles is to gain cooperation from groups and individual through formal rules (via process and/or organisation structure), to ensure project/service targets are met. Yet once projects have completed (or service-focus has shifted) and the associated structure and controlled environment are disbanded, performance is likely to drop if formal rules are no longer present. If organisation culture can act as a social control mechanism then it can be used to maintain project/service performance during and long after projects have completed by means of raising staff and end-user participation and to encourage continuous improvement (CI).

In the context of projects, the ideal end-user/staff behaviours (culture) are (but not limited to):

  • Proactively assist in the project during requirements gathering stage
  • Proactively assist in the project during the early specification & design stage
  • Promote the benefits of the project
  • Proactively assist in the implementation of the project
  • roactively assist in the communication and education during the project
  • Proactively assist others within the organisation to understand the implication of the project
  • Educate others within the organisation to understand the benefits of the project
  • Committed to use end-products after the completion of the project
  • Proactively assist others within the organisation to use end-products after the completion of the project
  • Committed to provide ongoing support for end-products
  • Committed to develop continuous improvement programme for end-products

Detecting misaligned work culture

In a project organisation where employees strongly embrace their organisation culture, the culturally-shared standards and values should prevent others to behave or act outside what is considered acceptable within that culture. What if the underlying culture is no longer viable for the organisation and more importantly how do one know if the current culture no longer fit the purpose of an project organisation?

Culture follows strategy. An article by Chatman (2003) showed that by actively managing culture, an organisation will be more likely to deliver on its strategic objectives over the long run. Furthermore Charan & Colvin (1999) suggested that firms whose strategies were merely reasonable but were executed fully could be the most successfully. This then shifts the focus from strategy formulation to strategy execution – and culture is all about execution.

In order to assess whether a particular culture fits an organisation one must identify the strategy that the organisation is actively pursuing. Once a strategy has been identified, managers would then be able to outline objectives & goals for the chosen strategy, along with the required culture traits required to achieve them. Take IBM in the late 80’s and the early 90’s for example: Its strength was in the development of innovative & task-specific solutions; that is until it changed its corporate strategy to provide computer services in the mid and late 90’s, and in doing so the culture of its workforce has changed; from a technology-centric (proprietary technologies) culture to one that is customer-centric (open standard & collaboration) and focuses on satisfying customers’ needs.

Generally project organisations aims to achieve the following objectives (not limited to):

  • Gather end-product (end-state) requirements from end-users or project sponsors
  • Deliver end-product on time
  • Deliver end-product on budget
  • Deliver end-product with specific level of quality
  • Have in place post-implementation processes & procedures in support of end-products

Users/Staff actions & behaviours that do not attribute to the project’s objectives are indicative of work culture misalignment between groups/individuals and that of the project. These actions & behaviours included (but not limited to):

  • Increase occurrences of disagreement among stakeholders
  • Project schedule is slipping
  • Level of inter-personal communication is low
  • Problems are taking a long time to solve
  • End-users have reverted to doing things the old way
  • Project team is unresponsive to change and request

What can organisations and managers do

Whether the new culture is to inject a sense of commitment into the project organisation or simply to reaffirm the existing culture managers should first understand the reason(s) that led to occurrences of behaviours that are indicative of cultural misalignment. The following are (and not limited to) some of the reason individuals & groups have shown little or no commitment to the project:

  • Management fails to relate the benefits of the project undertaken to the general business
  • Communication from management are infrequent and ineffective
  • Lack of staff consultation from management prior to project
  • The project undertaken do not (perceived) address the needs of users
  • Staff do not experience same problems as management
  • Staff’s belief that the existing way of doing things are adequate
  • Staff perceived the project undertaken to have little or no benefits
  • Staff do not know, do not understand the reasons or the project undertaken
  • Staff perceived the project undertaken as a threat to their job security
  • Management has not shown to have embraced the project themselves

To sum up, reasons that groups & individuals within organisations are non-committal to the project to which they belong to can be summarised into:

  1. Communication between management and project staff
  2. Staff’ belief system & expectation

The following sections are some suggestions managers can (some easy and some not) employ to re/enact organisation culture that is consistent with the achievement of the project’s objectives.

Adequate communication between management and staff

Some projects may not produce tangible products or services that can neither be seen nor felt (unlike construction projects where built structures can be seen and felt), thus project personnel, especially those who are indirectly involved in the project, may have difficulty in assessing the progression of the project. Groups & individuals within project organisations may (over time) find it frustrating not knowing if their contribution had made a difference to the project (note that it is more frustrating to know that their contribution do not make any difference). This clearly would result in a non-committal workforce. Managers can address this issue by doing a combination of the following (not limited to):

  • Ensure staff understands the motivation of project and its effect on the business
  • Periodically inform staff on the progress of the project
  • Inform staff if the project had hit problems
  • Inform staff if problems are solved
  • Ensure staff understands the impact of certain actions/behaviours to the project
  • Effort should be publicly acknowledged & rewarded by management
  • Ensure staff understands what they are accountable for
  • Highlight and communicate success as they emerge

On a personal level, individual strives for responsibilities and a sense of purpose. The suggestions given above all aim to instil senses of responsibility and purpose to project staff and to remind them that they are all part of the project organisation that strives to achieve set objectives. This can be achieved through bringing project staff closer to the business and allowing them to gain insights from management’s perspective; very often high-level strategic decisions require (sub-ordinate) staff to perform tasks that appeared illogical at the lower level, which project staff treats reservation.

Adequate project scoping

How many times have you heard the phase “That’s not really what we want” or “There is a better way to do this…” from the end-users? This sort of comment spells disasters for projects because they are comments made from those who are most likely to avoid using the end-products delivered by the project. Organisations creates & establishes new business processes to ensure high utilisation of end-product(s) but the REAL ‘take-up’ rate are likely to be lower than what the project organisation desires if users are not convinced. Here are a few things managers can do to ensure high ‘natural’ utilisation:

  • Get users affected by the change to help define the problem and design the solution
  • Give end-users a say in how the finished system should work

If end-users are consulted while scoping and defining the project, the end-products (end states) are likely to gain acceptance early on from end-users; and subsequently, the end-products (end states) should be appropriate and functional for users who are the most affected.

Develop and collect measured metrics

Within the context of culture change, ‘measuring metrics’ should only be used to challenge group & individuals’ existing belief system (myth). All too often decisions are made based on individual’s experience or (sometimes) invalid assumptions. Claims that are backed by collected data are objective in nature and are more likely to be accepted by others. For example, a claim that a particular initiative can reduce the time it takes to perform a particular task by X hours/days is more credible than one based unproven claim. The following can be achieved using metrics:

  • Challenge staff on their beliefs/myths on current process or operation. If staff believes current process or operation are efficient (when in fact they are not), present staff with collated metrics and compare them to industry benchmarks. Staff should ‘wake-up’ to the reality of their current operations and subsequently cooperation. Metrics that are common for this purpose are: man-hours/cost associated with current processes; man-hours/cost for industry/best-practise; man-hours/cost associated with using the new tool
  • Inform staff the business bottom-line effects from their action. For example, managers can present the business impact (in dollar terms) as a result of a re-occurring problem. At the same time managers should also show positive business impact as a result of staff’s effort. This should help to convince staff to align with project objectives
  • Managers can collect metrics before and after the initiatives were introduced, in order to measure the effects of new initiatives. Service improvements simply reinforce the reasons (business case) for new initiatives and strengthen support for implemented and for future initiatives; while service degradation would spur staff to improve their performances

Training and staff development

The primary reason for providing training & staff development is to ensure that staffs are well trained to fulfil their project responsibility. Other desirable effects in providing adequate training and personal development are increased commitment from staff, innovation and autonomous within the project organisation. Training gives staff the knowledge and confidence for them to achieve what is expected of them, as well as reaffirming that they play an active role in assisting the project organisation in achieving its objectives; all of which serves to increase their commitment to the project organisation and its objectives. Staffs that are well trained are more innovative, more adapted to work autonomously and are more confident in more calculated risk in order to achieve organisation (project) objectives.

As well as providing adequate training and having personal development planning in place. It is equally important to recruit individuals who fit the culture of the project organisation. Managers should pay particular attention on assessing whether the selected individual has ideals and motivation similar to what the project organisation required to achieve its objectives. Managers who are in the position to define objectives and goals for the project are well placed to assess whether there is a culture fit. If the ideals and motivation of the project organisation are drastically different from those of the selected, other more closely matched candidates should be selected. No amount of socialisation (see note 1) and training can successfully ensure a ‘snug’ cultural fit when the cultural gap is wide.

[Note 1 – Socialisation is the act of learning one’s culture and how to live within it, through informal interaction between the project organisation and the learner]

Cultural Reinforcement

There are other tools project organisations and managers can use to ensure that their staff are committed and motivated to achieve common goals. The following are some examples of cultural reinforcements:

  • Adequate reward system – This can include both financial and non-financial rewards for staff’s effort that contributed to the achievement of project organisation objectives. The use of reward system highlights and encourages actions & behaviours that project organisation endorses
  • Publicly praise those who strive towards achieving organisation goals – This is similar to reward system but without tangible rewards. It encourages actions & behaviours that the project organisation endorses. This can achieve maximum affects with (almost…) no cost
  • Managers leading by example – This has motivation effect on project staff as they see their manager engage in actions and behaviour that are promoted and endorsed by the project organisation
  • Frequently communicate culture – This serves as a reminder to staff on the goals & objectives that the project organisation strives to achieve and what it means for the project to achieve them. This can be communicated through presentations, an (project) organisation motto, or an object that symbolise the essence to achieve project goals. For example: Google’s mission statement of “Do no evil” symbolises the firm’s quest the sharing of knowledge with good intend


Culture follows strategy. By actively managing culture, an organisation will be more successful at delivering on its strategic objectives. Research has suggested that firms with merely reasonable strategies but were executed fully could be the most successfully. This then shifts the focus to execution – Culture is all about execution. I hope the fore-mentioned statement would provoke some thoughts process among our readers with managerial responsibilities and I hope this article have gone some way to show that, besides proven management methodologies, established processes, procedures and an effective organisation structure, there exist other fundamental forces – Culture – that are equally (or more) important. Let’s take an everyday scenario to drive the point home: It is not the presence of police, or the fact that you may go to jail, that prevents you from breaking into your neighbour’s house. It is your upbringing, ideal and moral responsibility, aka CULTURE that stops you from break-in & entering. If managers can adequately manage culture at the project’s outset, they can leverage on culture to maintain the level of commitment and motivation even when management methodologies, processes, procedures and project organisation structure have been stripped away (typically at the end of the project).


  1. Aiken C B. & Keller S P. (2007), The CEO’s role in leading transformation, The McKinsey Quarterly: The Online Journal of McKinsey & Co.
  2. Chatman, J & Cha, S. (2003), Leading by Leveraging Culturt, California Management Review, Summer: 20 – 43
  3. Charan, R. (2006), Home Depot’s Blueprint for Culture Change, Harvard Business Review, April: 61 – 70
  4. Phillips N., Lecture notes on Organisational Culture, Imperial College Business School, Imperial College London
  5. Charan R & Colvin G, Why CEO Fail, Fortune June21, 1999 pp 68 – 78

(NB - This article was previously published at tildba.com but has since been moved here by the author)

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