Issue 102

Project Manager Recipe for Success in front of Organizational Culture problems

Antal-Árpád Flórián-Udvari
Software Development Manager


Usually the longest phase, where the majority of people are involved in a project is the execution phase. Ensuring success in this phase poses the greatest challenges, as the four dimension of project management state that success depends on the project manager's competencies, the structure of the organization, the process of progress monitoring, and the practices that are part of the organization culture (Kendra & Taplin, 2004). While competencies and progress monitoring depend solely on the project manager and are, therefore, considered controllable, the organization structure and culture is much greater, thus hard to manage. Therefore, in this essay we'll consider these as fixed, and try to argue in favor of the working solutions to overcome these limitations.

Understanding the pros and cons of each type of organizational structure gives project managers a chance to spend their most valuable resource - their time - by influencing the project team towards project success. Yet, no matter how an organization chart looks like, the way the project team maps into more than just the organization chart, and the organization culture (especially for globally distributed project teams) are factors that must also be considered and acted upon to succeed. We'll walk through these, discussing the strategies and the relevant management concepts along the theories provided in the literature. Our aim is to touch upon a range of relevant aspects to avoid project failure, with some examples about how the issue may be solved with the help of the Agile methodologies coined for software project development. In a way, this would be a very good exercise to put Bono's (2000) Six Thinking Hat technique into use: promoting collaborative thinking, keeping focus, improved communication, conflict resolution, deep understanding through exploration, enabling innovation, saving time and ultimately to boost team performance, all key to project success from a project management perspective. The organization structure and culture are known in advance, so a project manager should recognize and monitor risks that result from these as early as the planning phase. Through their actions (or inactions), project managers have the greatest influence on the project team during execution. It is the execution phase where adjustments can be made. A competent project manager thus controls the project during the execution phase, in relation to the organization culture and structure, to know what adjustment needs to be done in order to succeed.

It's all about the people in the organization structure

Project managers tend to forget that an organization is basically a group of people, not of resources or assets (as they are commonly referred to), each person having their own role in the organizational structure, regardless of whether the organization is functional, matrix-based or project-based. The disadvantages differ:

While Kloppenberg (2015) argues that it is a disadvantage for a project-based team to disregard the work methods of a parent organizations, this actually can be an advantage for self-organized teams which adopt Agile methodologies, thus ensuring a competitive advantage and better success rates, according to the principle "The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams" (Beck et al, 2001). However a project manager might also find it difficult to guide and assist such a team as his role can become blurry. Delegating some of the project management responsibilities in such situations is preferred, as Hoda & Murugesan (2016) make their recommendations based on their research. These authors introduce concepts like the holistic approach to a project plan, the creation of cross-functional Agile teams through knowledge transfer and regular retrospective meetings, the use of technological tools, and the effectiveness of communications, emphasizing that addressing these will lead to a better success rate for Agile projects.

From a project management point of view, the success and efficiency of the project is defined by Dalcher (2012:650) as "the degree to which implementation meets the budget, schedule and technical specification". Dalcher also mentions that the preconditions which strategic managers must set to make both organizational culture and organizational structures relevant are: "implementation structure cognizant of organization and contracting; with clear communication and controls; and good, well qualified personnel". For project software development, the Agile manifesto addresses the qualified personnel with the following two principles "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done." and "Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility." (Beck et al, 2001).

Culture is not only about not showing up to work in a mini-skirt in the Arab world, not eating beef for lunch in India, or not blowing your nose in the office in Japan

Project managers must consider both the parent organization culture, and, most of the time, the external client's organization culture as well. By understanding the values and social beliefs of both, they should develop a shared project culture to facilitate project success. Developing such a project culture is tricky as priorities need to be set among the project, the team, and the stakeholders while maintaining a balance between them (Kloppenberg, 2015). Performance tend to suffer in weak cultures, where agreement lacks around core values. Denison et al (2004) mentions that the most effective organizations are the ones that can address the empowerment of employees at all levels while still fitting the strategic vision without compromises. In software development, two more Agile principles that relate to this are: the existence of self-organized teams and the presence of self-tuning ("At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly" (Beck et al, 2001)). This essentially says that a self-organizing project team can have its own culture, own rules, and be not only empowered to change but encouraged to do so on a regular basis. The Agile project manager needs to create the environment for such periodic changes, encourage change while keeping the flux in a reasonable limit, within the values and strategic vision of the organizations involved, essentially becoming a leader for their team. But what if this does not fit with the overall strategic vision? As 'culture eats strategy for breakfast' according to famous business consultant Peter Drucker, leaders may create a unique brand experience from the magical cultural elements identified, and incorporate these elements into the strategic plan (Friedman, 2018). If you recognize that culture is part of the strategy, but you do not have support to develop a new organization strategy, the last but hardest resort would be changing the culture (Grinyer & Spender, 1979).

To measure the impact of organizational culture on project failure, Shore (2016) maps cognitive biases like available data, conservatism, escalations of commitment, group thinking, illusion of control, overconfidence, recency, selective perception and sunk cost to Livari and Huisman's (2007) Competing Values Model four dimensions: internal and external focus, stability and change. They conclude that no matter what strategies or managerial concepts are applied, these are insufficient to ensure project success because the systematic biases are common. Instead, the authors promote the creation of an organizational culture which reduces the fear of failure. A quantitative research pointed out that, while it's at the base of the pyramid, only 7.1% of the people consider culture to be related to the success of an Agile approach, while 35.7% of the people consider rapid communication the most important among team member, placing tools and techniques second at 28.6%, as presented in Figure 1 (Hamdani & Butt, 2017):

Figure 1 Hierarchy of success and failure factors in Agile project (Hamdani & Butt, 2017:985)

Another concept that needs to be considered is the current definition of project success in relation to the actual organizational culture specifics, as these can vary greatly from one organization to another, or from one client to another. While in classical project management success is usually referred to as being within the boundaries of the iron triangle, Atkinson (1999) proposed a redefinition for project success as a new framework, The Square Root. As in the Iron Triangle model, the budget and the timeframe are two best guesses. In his opinion, quality is a phenomenon rather than a criteria. This misconception led to many failed projects, because it meant that project management is not as optimal as it could have been if something is indeed missing from the definition. The Square Root approach is presented with some examples in Figure 2. Square Root tries solve the problem by advocating in favor of more balanced success criteria. Essentially, the measurement of project success is usually done wrong, as it is directed by the organization culture. This can be easily addressed by the project manager in the initiation phase, while drafting the contract.

Figure 2 Square Root to understanding success criteria (Atkinson, 1999:341)

Cross cutting concerns between organization structure and organizational culture

A study by Glassop (2002) also suggests that self-managing work groups increased workplace productivity, reduced management hierarchy and led to a higher degree of employee retention. Such a self-managing work group is in line with the self-organizing teams promoted by Agile. This also tells us that a project manager, especially in an Agile environment, should not manage but rather lead, guide or coach the team towards success, meaning that, at least from the team perspective, work is done in a flatter organization structure.

Considering the Tuckman (1965) model, an Agile project manager should focus on creating high performing teams as fast as possible, maybe even skipping stages from the model, by defining and driving consensus around team ground rules, team vision. It is a must to make the team execute a project plan, by setting up an environment so the team members can get to know, trust and understand each other. The definition of such ground rules is time well spent if all team members follow these rules (Stuart, 2014). Setting such rules is especially important when a project member tries to use their previous functions in the organization structure to dominate the team, or worse, when the team is from a high-power distance culture, and they accept such behavior.

For project managers wanting to work with the best people, talent management may come to the rescue. Line managers want to grow the least experienced persons, so these get assigned to project teams to grow their skills. High performance organization cultures are conducive to the effectiveness of attracting and retaining talent, as Kontoghiorghes (2014) researched, which has a great effect on employee motivation, satisfaction, and commitment. Treating a team as a small organization, where talent is developed, would be within the power of project manager. To maximize the potential of talents who find organization structure and culture too restrictive, project managers should create an organic environment that demands personal initiative, viewing contributions and ideas as paramount for project success, facilitating frequent re-designs, also in accordance with the Agile principles, in order to drive innovative results. However, further studies would be needed to see, if after project closure, the culture created within such teams can influence the new project teams and ultimately the greater organization. The assumption is that planting the seed of an ethical work culture, one that is based on respect and integrity, can spread across the organization affecting its culture, and has the potential to change it into a high performing one, one that not only will retain but will also attract talent.

Cooke-Davies et all (2009) talk about project management systems at the organization level, where structures and processes are defined to ensure project success, and part of this process is also establishing cultural norms. They highly criticize this, because if the organization strategy drives the project management approach without taking into account project characteristics, it can be a good reason why such projects fail. As an alternative, a project success value framework was presented by Kendra & Taplin (2004) with four independent elements interlinked as a systemic approach. Their findings about how the values in an organization structure and organizational culture have an impact on project success are presented in Figure 3:

Figure 3 Project management values framework

We can see here how the team culture stands as a core link between project success and organizational values. We can notice the respect and integrity Kontoghiorghes talks about, which should also be reflected in the team ground rules. We can see the link among collaborative teams, team development, talent (people) management and continuous improvement. Stakeholder satisfaction is assured by communication, client involvement and customer enthusiasm. However, there is one value, namely individual performance management, which is not in line with self-organizing teams that consider themselves working in a flat organization structure. In such a team where the group creates the outcome, individual performance should not count. Project managers still have a tool to address this, through one-to-one meetings, seen as an opportunity to give feedback and get input that may not be discussed with the whole team.

Yet, there are quite complex interrelations between the team, the processes, the measurement system, the project manager skills, and the organizational structure and culture, so the assumption is that this needs to be set up in advance. For this, Rolstadas et al (2014) applied an adapted pentagon model to analyze five different aspects like structure, technology, culture, interaction and social relation/networks. They believe that success can already be increased in the planning phase, by consciously combining either a prescriptive or an adaptive project management approach based on the model presented in Figure 4:

Figure 4 The Extended Pentagon Model

These are conducive to an efficient execution phase and essentially provide another lens to look at the big picture that unfolds during the execution phase. For a project manager looking at the Extended Pentagon Model it shortly becomes obvious that the model omits an important factor: the risks that lie behind every arrow. The difficulty of managing risks effectively in complex projects as early as the project planning phase with regards to the organizational structure and organizational culture was studied by Thamhain (2013). The recognition of such risks early is of utmost importance in dealing with them effectively, with the least impact on project success. In order to do that effectively, project managers should facilitate a cross-functional communication within the team, but also to create a collaborative work environment enabling access to the team to the external stakeholders.


When two parameters, such as the organization culture and organization structure, are fixed in the four dimensions of project management success, it all comes down to the skill and competencies of the project manager and the way in which he can measure progress in order to avoid failure. It is certainly not enough. As the saying goes: "if the mountain will not come to Mohamed, Mohamed will go to the mountain". Therefore, project managers should act within their boundaries, creating a performance-oriented and a process-oriented Agile project management subculture within their self-organized teams through great leadership, communication and team development. Moving the focus towards groups influences the outcome, so that the deliverables are not that hard to obtain. The group shares the responsibilities of the project manager who traditionally was the only one accountable on project-related matters. The skills of an Agile project manager should not only rely on knowing traditional project integration, scope, schedule, cost, quality, people, communications, procurement and stakeholder management, but should also enforce the Agile manifesto. There are no exact recipes (strategies, concept or theories) to address the complexity of projects, especially in an environment where "the only thing that is constant is change" (Heraclitus). However, knowing about existing concepts, theories, models, strategies, and most importantly know when to apply each to lead to a successful project execution phase requires critical thinking. Perfecting such a skill not only needs self-development, but also needs active listening and assertive communicator skill, the ability to analyze and dissect the existing information to develop a foresight, and finally make the best decision preferably together with their teams.

If a project manager finds adapting to today's Agile techniques too hard (namely finding their role in an Agile team as leader rather than a manager), then maybe a change of profession would be recommended. Today we live in the world of bloggers and influencers, so become one for your team or you'll be left behind or even ridiculed.


  1. Atkinson, R. (1999) Project management: cost, time and quality, two best guesses and a phenomenon, it's time to accept other success criteria, International Journal of Project Management, 17(6), 337-342.

  2. Beck, K., Beedle; M., Bennekum, A.; Cockburn, A.; Cunningham, W.; Fowler, M.; Grenning, J.; Highsmith, J.; Hunt, A.; Jeffries, R.; Kern, J.; Marick, B.; Martin, R.; Mellor, S.; Schwaber, K.; Sutherland, J. and Thomas, D. (2001) Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Available online: http://www.agilemanifesto.org/principles.html [Accessed 15/06/2019].

  3. Bono, D. E. (2000) Six thinking hats, Rev. edition. London: Penguin.

  4. Cooke-Davies, T.J.; Crawford, L.H; Lechler, T.G. (2009) Project Management Systems: Moving Project Management From an Operational to a Strategic Discipline, Project Management Journal, 40(1),110-123.

  5. Dalcher, D. (2012) The nature of project management: A reflection on The Anatomy of Major Projects by Morris and Hough, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 5(4), 643-660.

  6. Denison, D.R., Haaland, S. and Goelzner, P. (2004) Corporate culture and organizational reflectiveness: is Asia different from the rest of the world?, Organizational Dynamics, 33(1), 98-109.

  7. Friedman, R. (2018) Corporate culture, Smart Business Columbus; Cleveland 27(2), 12.

  8. Glassop, L.I. (2002) The organizational Benefits of Teams. Human Relations, 55(2), 225-249.

  9. Grinyer, P. H. & Spender, J.C.(1979) Turnaround : managerial recipes for strategic success: the fall and rise of the Newton Chambers group, London:Associated Business Press.

  10. Hoda, R.; Murugesan, L.K. (2016) Multi-level agile project management challenges: A self-organizing team perspective, The Journal of Systems and Software, 117(7), 245-257.

  11. Kendra, K.; Taplin, L.J. (2004) Project Success: a Cultural Framework, Project Management Journal, 35(1), 30-45.

  12. Kloppenborg, T.J. (2015) Contemporary Project Management, 3rd edition, Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

  13. Kontoghiorghes, C. (2016) Linking high performance organizationalculture and talent management: satisfaction/motivation and organizational commitment asmediators, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(16), 1833-1853.

  14. Livari, J., & Huisman, M. (2007) The relationship between organizational culture and the deployment of systems development methodologies, MIS Quarterly, 31(1), 35-58.

  15. Rolstadas, A.; Tommelein,I.; Schiefloe, P.M.; Ballard,G. (2014) Understanding project success through analysis of project management approach, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 7(4), 638-660.

  16. Shore, B. (2016) Systematic Biases and Culture in Project Failures, Project Management Journal, 39(4), 5-16.

  17. Stuart, A. (2014). Ground rules for a high performing team. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2014—North America, Phoenix, AZ. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

  18. Tereso, A., Ribeiro, P., Fernandes, G., Loureiro, I., & Ferreira, M. (2019) Project Management Practices in Private Organizations, Project Management Journal, 50(1), 6-22.

  19. Thamhain, H. (2013) Managing Risks in Complex Projects, Project Management Journal, vol. 44(2), 20-35.




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