Collaboration and Crisis in Mega Projects: A Study in Cross Corporate Culture Conflict and its Resolution

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Karen Smits
Robert A. Brownlow


Projects typically involve multiple partners coming together to form a temporary project organization that manages project execution. Partners begin their relationship with soaring aspirations to collaborate but as they move through the project’s various phases and they experience friction, especially those related to cultural clashes, their noble aspirations succumb to creeping, if not full blown, crisis. This, in turn, creates lost relationality and compromised execution. Thus, the question: How can project partners manage the integration of differing corporate cultures and work processes to produce the most effective and efficient outcomes?  Using the mega project of the Panama Canal Expansion Program, the authors explore how a multicultural project organization moved from dysfunctional relationality to synergistic, self-reinforcing, collaboration. A “Collabyrinth” (Smits, 2013) model explores how participants learned to collaborate in a holding environment saturated with layers of complex cultural difference.  The Collabyrinth is composed of six comingling elements: (1) Conflicting Conditions, (2) Submarining, (3) Seeking Consent, (4) Storytelling, (5) Crafting Reciprocal Relations, (6) Synergizing. Certain aspects of crisis management are employed to explain intra-collabyrinth dynamics. Those aspects are: (1) Coming of the Forerunners, (2) Acuteness in the Now, (3) Resolution Seeking, and (4) Constructing Relationality. Specific examples of the collabyrinth journey are provided and recommendations are made to harness the positive power of cross-corporate culture collaboration.


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Author Biographies

Karen Smits, FIA Business School

Karen Smits is a lecturer for International MBA at FIA Business School, São Paulo, Brazil. In 2012, she obtained her PhD at VU University Amsterdam, Netherlands, with the study Cross Culture Work: Practices of Collaboration in the Panama Canal Expansion Program. She received the “Highly Commended Paper Award” from the Emerald Literati Network in 2013. Karen has presented her work at international (academic) conferences, including TEDx, and she is a frequent keynote speaker at management events. Her topics of interest are cultural change and cross-collaborative practices in complex projects. Karen is active in the corporate world as an expert consultant on developing intercultural collaboration, organizational change and growth initiatives.

Robert A. Brownlow, Bakke Graduate University

Dr. Brownlow’s work spans both private and academic sectors. He has worked with executives from America, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, The People’s Republic of China, Russia, and South Africa. He has served as Professor of Record at Bakke Graduate University, Principal Faculty at City University of Seattle, and Visiting Scholar at Capella University. His academic expertise includes crisis management, critical thinking, organizational change, project management, leadership, and cross cultural engagement. Dr Brownlow holds a doctorate in Education Leadership from Seattle University and multiple master degrees and certificates from multiple universities.


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