Corporate culture and projects – breeding ground or stumbling block?

Inspired by a keynote address by Prof. Sonja Sackmann during a conference of the Bertelsmann Foundation, I would like to address the relationship between projects and corporate culture. However, culture is very difficult to grasp in an organisation. Moreover, there is not just one culture, but a multiplicity of (sub)cultures that influence each other. Cultural influences naturally play a major role in the implementation of temporary tasks in the form of projects. Projects also shape their own culture. The more projects are carried out in an organization, the more the project culture influences the corporate culture. This can be observed especially in the example of agile project work.

How can culture be defined in the context of an organization? Prof. Sackmann defines it as a set of fundamental beliefs held by the members of a group, which determines their perception, thinking, feeling and acting in a decisive way and is typical for the group as a whole. Whereby quite different group affiliations can occur in an organization and thus culture becomes a mere patchwork. A specific culture can occur in certain functional areas, at hierarchical levels, in regional, national or industry-related units, in certain professional or ethnic groups, generations, etc. In addition to formal relationships within a group, there are often strong informal relationships across all levels that affect a culture.

If you want to understand the culture in an organisation, you can get to the beliefs, values and rules by observing or analysing the narratives of group members. Often, however, these are implicit, i.e. difficult to grasp and cannot always be clearly described by the group members. It is all too easy to have a culture described by the obvious artefacts and practices. However, this quickly leads to misunderstandings and prejudices without having grasped the essence of the culture.

The team for a project is recruited out of experts from different internal departments of the organisation as well as from other external partners. Each team member brings its own culture to the project, which does not always make the cooperation easy. For example, the quality expert in a vehicle development project may bring a strong zero-defect culture along, but the project manager is under time pressure and therefore does not strive for a “perfect” solution, instead aiming for a “Minimum Viable Product (MVP)”. Conflicts can quickly arise here. The surrounding organization also has an influence on the project. For example, the team of an innovative software project wants to move forward in a self-determined way, but the division manager is determined and always uses “Micromanagement” to spark the project. Or a project team wants to implement an innovative building concept with a supplier who has a lot of know-how but is restricted by the procurement department of the company due to a too narrow interpretation of the specifications and finally throws in the towel.

When starting a project, cultural influences should therefore be analysed and considered when setting up the team of internal experts and external partners. Cultural influences should complement and strengthen each other as far as possible in the sense of the project goal and contribute to the development of the organisation. Projects can, for example, be deliberately selected according to the contribution they make to the development of the organisation. If a company is faced with the challenge of being innovative and adaptable, then the management can consciously focus on projects of this kind via portfolio management and thus “shape culture”. In doing so, it is important to strengthen resilience, i.e. the robustness of the company, not imposed from above, but through targeted interventions and the granting of room for manoeuvre to those involved.

This is why the IPMA Individual Competence Baseline (IPMA ICB) in Version 4.0 requires a project manager to be competent in “Culture and Values” and explains: “This competence element describes how the individual is enabled to recognise and integrate the influence of internal and external cultural aspects on the project approach, the project goals, the project processes, the agreed results and their sustainability. Although companies often offer training on how to deal with different national cultures, they often neglect to deal with the cultures within their own company. This is where we need to start in future.

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Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Managementberatung



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