3 Ways To Become A Strategic Project Manager

Image Credit: Compass by PDPics (Pixabay.com)

Image Credit: Compass by PDPics (Pixabay.com)

Strategy is an exciting term! For me, it conjures two different images. First, I imagine a 1940s era meeting room filled with generals and admirals as they plan the next stage of the war. Second, I imagine meetings between CEOs and consultants from firms such as McKinsey. There’s just one problem with those images. Those images imply that strategy is owned by those at the top of the organization and specialized consultants.

Why Strategy Matters

As leaders in today’s environment, there are several trends and challenges that make it more difficult to maintain a strategic view.

  • The Service Provider Challenge. According to The CIO Dilemma by Gil Press “39% of participants in this year’s survey say IT is still viewed as a cost center within their organiza­tion, essentially flat from 2013. And while the number of CIOs saying they have a service provider relationship with their Line-of-Business (LOB) colleagues jumped from 20 percent globally last year to 33 percent in 2014… that’s mixed news at best. Service providers follow strategies defined by others.” While there is a place to be a follower, we may reasonably expect more from CIOS and other executives.
  • The Regulatory Burden. 78% of CEOS are concerned about over-regulation according to PwC’s Annual Global CEO Survey. Complying with regulations takes resources away from other activities that your organization may wish to pursue. Fortunately, there is a silver lining for project managers – many project managers have found opportunities in regulatory project management.
  • Developing People and Leadership Are Top Challenges. A 2015 Conference Board study of nearly 1,000 CEOs found that talent, developing leaders and labour market matters were a top consideration for leaders. This challenge encourages all of us to use training resources to develop our skills and grow our value.

As you plan your way for the final months of 2015 and beyond, it is time to become a strategist.

3 Ways To Become A Strategic Contributor

Developing your strategic mind takes practice and study: do not expect immediate success. Remember what Will Rogers said, “”Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” The same is true in developing your strategic approach as a professional project manager.

1. Observe The Questions Executives Ask

Executives in your organization carry significant responsibilities and risk. They could try to reduce that risk by spending more and more time collecting information. Before long, an executive will hit a wall on how much more time they can dedicate to work. What’s the solution? There is no single silver bullet. One important tool to master is the art of asking strategic questions.


  • How does this proposed product align with our brand?
  • Who can we partner with to achieve this goal?
  • Who supports this idea and who is against it?

Resource: For more ideas and instruction on the art of asking important questions, I recommend “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions” by John C. Maxwell. I have been listening to this book as an Audible.com audio book and it is fantastic.

2. Say No To Low Value Projects

In  3 ways to advance your PM career now on CIO.com, Brad Egeland shared his advice, “Don’t accept “all” challenges. Don’t be the garbage collector of new projects.” That’s an excellent point to keep in mind as you work to become strategic. Choosing to turn down certain opportunities and projects is an important way to protect your focus and your personal brand. If you are working on developing yourself as an expert in Microsoft products, taking on a high profile project involving Oracle may not make sense.

Note: If you are new to the workforce or working to reinvent yourself, it pays to take a different approach. In those situations, you need as many projects and new skills as you can handle.

3. Work To Align With The Organization’s Strategy

In many situations, your approach to strategy will be formed and guided by those who are above in the organization chart. For example, a captain in the navy will plan a mission to align with the direction set out by the admirals. In the corporate world, most project managers face a similar challenge of aligning their work to existing strategy. How exactly can you pursue alignment?

  • Read the organization’s published strategy document. This is the foundation of your strategic understanding. Be prepared for business buzzwords!
  • Compare your organization’s strategy to a competitor. Understanding a strategy is often easier when you compare yourself to a competitor. If you are in a public company, you can use the “Competitors” feature in Yahoo Finance to find competitors (e.g. some of Verizon’s competitors include Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile). If you are in the public sector, look for similar organizations (e.g. if you are in a public university in New York City, look for other universities nearby with a similar student body or operating budget).
  • Observe how leaders are allocating resources to the strategy. Resources are required to bring strategy to life! This is where the rubber meets the road. For example, your organization may have a stated strategy to expand internationally. However, you may notice that there are no projects related to that strategy. If so, you may have to do further investigation to determine the real priorities of the organization.

Strategy Resources

Learning to ask those strategic questions takes added knowledge and practice. Each person will have to come up with their own approach to strategy practice. In the mean time, use these resources to boost your strategic understanding.

The Economist

Since high school, I have read The Economist and consider it one of the best news magazines in the world. It does take a while to adjust to the magazine’s quirks – articles are not unsigned and there is a certain political-economic philosophy at play. Never mind those quirks. The Economist consistently delivers fantastic value to subscribers.

Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne

This book comes up over and over again in my research on strategy. A key insight from the book is the distinction between red oceans (high competition, high information) and blue ocean (low competition, low information). If you are looking to create the new billion dollar product, a blue ocean strategy is more likely to work. The great challenge is that unknown markets and products are difficult to predict and the chance of failure is high. On the other hand, starting a new search engine to compete with Google carries great risks as well. If with great technology and supportive investors, it is difficult to see a way to overcome Google’s head start, talent and incredible financial resources.

24 Books To Hone Your Strategic Mind  by Ryan Holiday

This great list of books includes biography, history and a few traditional business books. I have read several books over the years based on his recommendations (e.g. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow – I was inspired to write Career Hacks From Young George Washington after reading Chernow’s book). If you someone asks you for gift ideas, you could always send them this article!

McKinsey Quarterly

McKinsey & Co is a well respected strategy consulting firm serving clients around the world. Learn more about McKinsey’s perspective in the world by reading McKinsey & Co. Project managers may find the following article of great interest: Developing talent for large IT projects.


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3 thoughts on “3 Ways To Become A Strategic Project Manager

  1. This article, “3 Ways To Become A Strategic Project Manager” is excellent and implies that importance and value of creating approaches that are responsive and optimize outcomes. In order to achieve those types of strategies more and more organizations are focusing on project-based executions and the capability of their project managers (regardless of what title they actually hold). A tailored, hybrid approach that effectively combines Agile and Traditional methods is mandatory for success in the midst of all the uncertainty and complexity of delivering on the strategic intent. Thanks for the good article! John Stenbeck, PMP, PMI-ACP, CSM, CSP, author of the AGILE ALMANAC (available Nov. 1st on Amazon)