Does business culture impact project success?

28. 02. 19 John Chapman

The model of organisational culture by Ron Westrum places organisations on a scale ranging from Pathological (power-oriented) to Generative (performance-oriented).

  • Pathological organisations are characterized by large amounts of fear and threat. People often hoard information or withhold it for political reasons, or distort it to make themselves look better.
  • Bureaucratic organisations protect departments. Those in the department want to maintain their “turf,” insist on their own rules, and generally do things by the book — their book.
  • Generative organisations focus on the mission. How do we accomplish our goal? Everything is subordinated to good performance, to doing what we are supposed to do

The different organisational cultures have varied attributes along six areas:




Low co-operation
Messengers shot
Responsibilities shirked
Bridging discouraged
Failure leads to scapegoating
Novelty crushed
Modest co-operation
Messengers neglected
Narrow responsibilities
Bridging tolerated
Failure leads to justice
Novelty leads to problems
High co-operation
Messengers trained
Risks are shared
Bridging encouraged
Failure leads to inquiry
Novelty implemented

Systems Design Workshop

The project has started. Design workshops are arranged. Documentation is issued detailing the agenda for the workshop. In preparation individuals are asked to identify current areas where there are issues and make recommendations as to how they can be overcome.

During the workshop, the lead consultants endeavours to act as facilitator. Open dialogue is proposed. Chatham House rules introduced to assist in encouraging free speech which is non-attributable.

After the workshop, the lead consultant suggests that the points covered are debated further, responses collated into a single document which is used for the system design.

The outcome?

The outcome will be very different depending on the organisational model. In the Pathological organisation there is unlikely to be open discussion. No-one would say that there are any issues to be resolved. Novel ideas are stopped at their source. At the other end is the Generative organisation where the open discussion takes place without fear of retribution. The result is a design that reflects the organisations requirement for system improvement.

Risk Management

The project manager, at project initiation, will need to understand the culture of the organisation. If it is pathological or bureaucratic the success of the design is at risk. Yet will the project manager note this down? They would be the messenger to the organisation of its pathological behaviour and messengers are shot. In the bureaucratic organisation the messenger is neglected.


Anyone leading an implementation project needs to recognise the importance of culture, and have an objective idea of the culture of their organisation. Ron Westrum’s table identifies what is to happen. If the organisation is pathological by nature or bureaucratic, then the first piece of work needs to be changing behaviours before trying to design new systems and procedures. To do this requires fundamental change from the top down.

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John Chapman

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John Chapman

Programme Director