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Knowledge Management, Operational Research, Project Management

September Newsletter: The impact of organisational culture on project management

Summer is well and truly over and it’s time for the first of my Autumn Newsletters.  September seems to be a month of Conferences and I attended a really interesting presentation by Michelle Morris from Manchester Municipal University Business School at the OR Conference recently.  Michelle spoke about some of the people and organisational factors that can impact on project planning.  It’s a subject I’ve blogged about before; for example when discussing the role of a Project Management Office and the way that some organisations make project management so inaccessible for their people.

One of Michelle’s points was that although we tend to describe projects as being “unique” in that they are set up to deliver something that an organisation hasn’t done before, there is a second dimension to “uniqueness”: people.  Understanding the human element is therefore key to effective project planning.  Most project managers these days would interpret that as meaning “Stakeholder Management” and that’s certainly an area that features strongly in the workshops I run on Project Management.

However, the “human element” is much more than Stakeholder Management; it covers a range of factors:

          Organisational knowledge (politics, agendas, needs, culture, mission, goals)

          Lessons learnt (outcomes of previous projects: positive and negative)

          Intuition and perception (individuals’ experiences, gossip, personalities and prejudices)

All these were described as Organisation Intuition and if it’s possible to build an understanding of this range of factors they should be really helpful when planning or managing any project.  Such intuition, related to a specific business, industry or sector has an important role to play in project planning because it can help identify:

          Cultural bottlenecks (what works or doesn’t in this culture?)

          Conflicting interests

          Sources of passive or active resistance

          Issues of trust

          Variations in internal perceptions (e.g. between different Functions – back office vs. front office)

I felt the idea of “cultural bottlenecks” was particularly useful in the context of Project Management.  I’ve come across so many organisations where “Project Management” is seen as management jargon and process/ bureaucracy.  All too often the people who have to run or contribute to projects simply aren’t “mature” enough to be able to cope with what they see as project-speak.  As one client said “my team would rather poke themselves in the eye with a sharp stick than do a ‘Risk Analysis’ on their project”.  So much of my consulting time is spent helping clients’ understand the “maturity” of their people in relation to managing projects and improvement and then adapting an approach to managing projects successfully that fits with that starting point.  I’ve lost tack of the number of organisations that I’ve heard claim that PRINCE2 is a scalable project approach and then proceed to mandate the use of endless processes and paperwork, irrespective of the need!

There is a good case to be made for capturing organisation intuition as a resource that can be used to aid planning of future projects.  Interestingly, from my point of view, this aligns closely with some of my previous writing on Knowledge Management.  Specifically, it raises the issue of tacit vs. explicit knowledge and the extent to which “knowledge” can be captured at all.

A key message in Michelle’s presentation was that if an organisation can capture and store such organisation intuition, it should be made available for future projects to improve planning and improve the chances of projects succeeding in a particular organisational context.  I completely agree with the view that organisation intuition is critical in planning (and managing) projects, but I’ve yet to come across a really good example of an organisation with a truly effective way to capture, store and use it. 

Another of the project-focused presentations at the same conference suggested that social networking tools such as blogs and Twitter-like chat could be the answer to stakeholder engagement when planning and managing a project.  That’s possibly correct, but it ignores the 90:9:1 Rule that I referred to in July’s Newsletter:  User participation in these online collaboration tools often more or less follows a 90-9-1 Rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e. read, but don’t contribute)
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t “have a life” because they devote so much time to posting content, however relevant it may or may not be.


As always, there are no silver bullets for managing successful projects, but an understanding of organisation intuition and how it can be used seems like a practical reminder of how to approach improvement using projects.

My free e-book “Project Management for real people” shares more of my experience of what works.

Until next time, good luck with your improvement efforts.


Ian Seath




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