Impact of Organizational Culture on Project Life Cycle – PMBOK Chapter 2

PMBOK tells us that projects and project management take place within a broader context than the project itself – projects operate within an organizational culture that influences how decisions are made, outcomes evaluated and project steps follow one another to a – hopefully – successful conclusion.

While all projects have a beginning and ending date, the steps in between can be ordered differently according to PMBOK (and those of us who are practitioners!).  There are life cycles that execute in a rigid sequence with planning, followed by design, development and testing. In a sequential life cycle, each phase is distinct from the next and does not begin until the previous phase completes. This is a tradition life cycle.

An overlapping life cycle allows work on more than one project phase at a time and may occur on complex projects or ones with subcontracted work. Alternatively, project phases may be iterative – where each phase is planned and designed only after feedback from the stakeholders on the previous phase.

PMBOK in Chapter 2 discusses life cycle characteristics, phases, and stakeholders. The end of the chapter, however, is the topic that began my reflections for this post – “Organizational Influences on Project Management” – including culture and style.

I have had the opportunity over my career to work with companies around the county. I found that there are culture-driven differences in how companies deal with life cycle, documentation, contractors, and employees even in similar industries.  It is not that one organizational style or culture is significantly better, more productive, or successful than another style – they are just noticeably different. And, those differences impact project managers.

Like what?

First, a caveat. As with all generalizations, my observations and those I am paraphrasing are not true all of the time in all organizations

Hands-on versus hands-off
Managers in some cultures are more involved in day-to-day operations—sometimes called east coast versus west coast style according to Joel on Software comparing his experience working at Microsoft on the west coast to working for Juno OnLine Services on the east coast.

“At Microsoft, management was extremely hands-off. In general, everybody was given some area to own, and they owned it. Managers made no attempt to tell people what to do, in fact, they saw their role as running around, moving the furniture out of the way…At Juno, quite the opposite was the case. Nobody at Juno owned anything, they just worked on it, and different layers of management happily stuck their finger into every pie, giving orders left and right in a style which I started calling hit and run management”

To the extent Joel’s observation can be generalized, project managers in a hands-on organization may expect more “help” from senior management, a greater need for documentation, and a greater responsibility to educate about technical possibilities and constraints.

Big Company versus Start-up
Established companies usually have a business development perspective for projects and existing processes for project execution. Start-ups on the other hand often view the world through technology-first glasses. The mindset in established companies is meeting cost and schedule whereas start-ups prioritize getting the product working.  Management in a start-up or small business is what one does in addition to product development. In an established company, management is a profession or skill set by itself.

Lifecycles in large organizations tend to be sequential and to a lesser extent overlapping. In small companies and startups, you find more iterative life cycles. The cultural milieu in large companies, especially on the east coast, tends to the formal in dress, communications, documentation, and interactions with suppliers and contractors. Think IBM “It wasn’t too long ago that some observers said that IBMers wore a uniform of pin-striped suits, white button-down shirts, rep ties and wing-tipped shoes.”  And if you didn’t have a IBM badge, you could not get in the building – even if you were the president.

West coast companies on the other hand lean in the direction of informality—after all, this is where the concept of “Business Casual” began.  The culture that drove business casual is the same one that affects the expectations of project managers and project life cycles. Commenting on management style in Silicon Valley start up companies, Atlantic Research says, “The Silicon Valley’s entrepreneur serves society by creating things that people could use, not by managing companies.” Managing projects and formalizing life cycle processes come several years after the first successful project.

So how does culture play into the life cycle of your project?  Is the culture rigid or formal?  Or is it one of laid back and no specific assignments?  Does the culture of the organization require adherence to a specific project life cycle with explicit steps?  Or is there no set project cycle and each project does its own thing?

I think you can see the impact organizational culture can have on the processes we use for a project.  (Oh – I don’t have time to discuss how having multiple companies and organizations working on the same project can influence the life of the project!!)

What has been your experience in the correlation of culture and project life cycle?

4 Responses to “Impact of Organizational Culture on Project Life Cycle – PMBOK Chapter 2”

  1. tboehm30 Says:

    In my experience on IT projects, I can compare the technical manager to the non-technical manager. One needs to know the tech-details and reviews any documentation with an eye toward helping out. One reviews the milestones with an eye toward removing obstacles.

  2. Bruce Lofland Says:

    I worked in a lot of different organizational cultures in my career and agree with your assessment here. Learning the culture of the organization of the organization you work for and adapting to it is essential to be effective in it. It is important to be flexible and not judgemental when changing job or working with other organizations, because changing the culture is not easy to do.

  3. Eric Says:

    My work experience tells me that the organizational culture is the critical aspect in managing projects and especially making asisgnments. Teams tend to have a background that is defined by the existing organization culture so that background will play a pivotal role in project management activities.
    I agree with your point showed in this article. Thanks for the post.

  4. belinda Says:

    i really agree thank you for the help

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