Periodicity.: April - June 2017
e-ISSN......: 2236-269X
Cover Image

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

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.


cross-cultural collaboration; crisis management; collabyrinth model; conflict resolution; Panama Canal Expansion Program

Full Text:



BOIN, A.; T HART, P.; STERN, E.; SUNDELIUS, B. (2005) The politics of crisis management: Public leadership under pressure, New York: Cambridge University Press.

BOLMAN, L.; DEAL, T. (2013) Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice & Leadership, John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco.

BOLMAN, L.; DEAL, T. (2014) How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

BOUD, D.; CRESSEY, P.; DOCHERTY, P. (2006) Productive Reflection at Work: Learning for Changing Organizations, New York: Routledge.

BRESNEN, M.; MARSHALL, N. (2011) Projects and Partnerships: institutional processes and emergent practices, in: MORRIS, P. W. G.; PINTO, J. K.; SÖDERLUND, J. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Project Management, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 154-174.

BROWNLOW, R. (2007) Finding Way: Post-Teachers’ Strike Relationship Recovery and School District Renewal. Doctoral Dissertation, Seattle: Seattle University.

BROWNLOW, R. (2011) Reflective-Heuristic Practice, Crisis Management an Charleston, SC: d Simulation: An Integrated Methodology, in: KIRSTEIN, K.; HINRICHS,J.; OLSWAG, S. (Ed.) Authentic Instruction and Online Delivery: Proven Practices in Higher Education, Charleston: CreateSpace Publishing, p. 147 - 168.

CLAUSEN, L. (2007) Corporate Communication Challenges: A 'Negotiated' Culture Perspective, International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, v. 7, p. 317-332.

DARLING, J.; RUSS, D. (2000) Relationship capital. Executive Excellence, v. 17, n. 5, p. 14.

DIETRICH, P.; ESKEROD, P.; DARLCHER, D.; SANDHAWALIA, B. (2010) The Dynamics of Collaboration in Multipartner Projects. Project Management Journal, v. 41, n. 4, p. 59-78.

ENGWALL, M. (2003) No project is an island: linking projects to history and context. Research Policy, v. 32, p. 789-808.

FLYVBJERG, B.; HOLM, M. S.; BUHL, S. (2002) Underestimating Costs in Public Projects. Error or Lie? Journal of the American Planning Association, v. 68, n. 3, p. 279-295.

GITTELL, J. (2005) The Southwest Airlines way: Using the power of relationships to achieve high performance. New York: McGraw-Hill.

GITTELL, J. (2016) Transforming Relationships for High Performance: The Power of Relational Coordination. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

GRABHER, G. (2002) Cool Projects, Boring Institutions: Temporary Collaboration in Social Context. Regional Studies, v. 36, n. 3, p. 205-214.

HARTMANN, A.; BRESNEN, M. (2011) The emergence of partnering in construction practice: an activity theory perspective. The Engineering Project Organizational Journal, v. 1, p. 41-52.

HEIFETZ, R. A.; LINSKY, M. (2002) Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

HODSON, R. (2001) Dignity at Work, New York: Cambridge University Press.

HODSON, R. (2005) Management behavior as social capital: A systematic analysis of organizational ethnographies, British Journal of Industrial Relations, v. 43, n. 1, p. 41-66.

HOFFMAN, B. G. (2012) American Icon: Alan Mulally and The Fight to Save Ford Motor Company, New York: Crown Business.

JOSSERAND, E.; CLEGG, S.; KORNBERGER, M.; PITSIS, T. (2004) Friends or Foes? Practicing Collaboration - An Introduction, M@n@gement, v. 7, n. 3, p. 37-45.

MARTIN, A.; HAGAN, D.; RUTYNA, B. (2004) Collaborative Change Practice: Embedding Actionable Knowledge in Real Work, Academy of Management Proceedings, p. C1-C6.

MILES, M. B.; HUBERMAN, A. M. (1994) An expanded source book: Qualitative data analysis, 2 ed, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

MORAN, P. (2005) Structural vs. relational embeddedness: Social capital and managerial performance. Strategic Management Journal, v. 26, n. 12, p. 1129-1151.

MORRIS, D. (1993) The Meanings of Pain, in: The Culture of Pain, Los Angeles: University of California Press, p. 31-56.

MEZIROW, J. (1991) Making meaning through reflection, in: Transformative dimensions of adult learning, San Francisco: Jossey Bass, p. 91-117.

PUTMAN, R. D. (2000) Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon & Shuster.

PUTNAM, R. D. (2004) Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society, New York: Oxford University Press.

REEVES, R. (2004) Friendship is the invisible thread running through society. New Statesman, v. 133, n. 4684, p. 29-32.

SCHEIN, E. (2013) Humble Inquiry: The Art of Asking Instead of Telling, San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers.

SCHEIN, E. H. (2016) Humble Consulting: How to Provide Real Help Faster, Oakland: Barrett-Koehler.

SCOTT, W. R.; LEVITT, R. E.; ORR, R. J. (2011) Global Projects. Institutional and Political Challenges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SMITS, K. (2013) Cross Culture Work: Practices of Collaboration in the Panama Canal Expansion Program, Delft: Next Generation Infrastructures Foundation.

SMITS, K.; VAN MARREWIJK, A. (2012). Chaperoning: Practices of Collaboration in the Panama Canal Expansion Program. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, v. 5, n. 3, p. 440-456.

SMITS, K.; VAN MARREWIJK, A.; VEENSWIJK, M. (2015). The Collabyrinth of Cross-cultural Collaboration in the Panama Canal Megaproject, in: VAN MARREWIJK, A. (Ed.), Inside Megaprojects: Understanding the Cultural Practices in Project Management, Copenhagen: CBS Press, p. 103-136.

SCHWARTZ-SHEA, P.; YANOW, D. (2012) Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes, New York: Routledge.

TOWERS PERRIN HR SERVICES (2003) Working today: Understanding what drives employee engagement: The 2003 Towers Perrin Talent Report. Available: Access: October 14th, 2016

VAN MARREWIJK, A.; CLEGG, S.; PITSIS, T.; VEENSWIJK, M. (2008) Managing public private megaprojects: Paradoxes, complexity, and project design. International Journal of Project Management, v. 26, p. 591-600.

VEENSWIJK, M.; BERENDSE, M. (2008) Constructing new working pratices through project narratives. International Journal Project Organisation and Management, v. 1, n. 1, p. 65-85.

WELCH, C.; PIEKKARI, R.; PLAKOYIANNAKI, E.; PAAVILAINEN-MÄNTYMÄKI, E. (2011) Theorising from case studies: Towards a plurist future for international business research. Journal of International Business Studies, v. 42, p. 740-762.

WEYMES, E. (2003) Relationships not leadership sustain successful organizations, Journal of Change Management, v. 3, n. 4, p. 319-332.

WHEATLEY, M. J. (2003) Turing to one another, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

YANOW, D.; TSOUKAS, H. (2009) What is reflection-in-action? A phenomenological account, Journal of Management Studies, v. 46, n. 8, p. 1339-1364

YBEMA, S.; YANOW, D.; WELS, H.; KAMSTEEG, F. (2009) Organizational Ethnography: Studying the Complexities of Everyday Life, London: Sage


Article Metrics

Metrics Loading ...

Metrics powered by PLOS ALM


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2017 Karen Smits, Robert A. Brownlow

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Logo Gaudeamus






Logo Kennedy

Logo Columbia

Logo UCS


Logo OPT

Logo Biblioteca Professor Milton Cabral Moreira

Logo UFL