Project Management Strategy from NASA and Beyond

Photo of Terry Schmidt, PMP, MBA

Terry Schmidt, PMP, MBA. Terry is the author of “Strategic Project Management Made Simple” and consultant to Fortune 500 companies.

From NASA engineering intern to consulting with Disney, Apple and eBay, Terry Schmidt has wide ranging project management experience. In this interview, Terry shares his knowledge and experience in project management with a focus on project management. In addition to his impressive client list, Terry holds a BS in Engineering from the University of Washington and a MBA from Harvard Business School. Terry earned the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification AND also holds the Strategic Management Professional designation.

What You Will Learn From Today’s Interview:

  • how to connect “housekeeping projects” with the strategy
  • a simple four step process to create your own strategy
  • four ways for project managers to rapidly improve their understanding of strategy
  • Terry’s most challenging project – ‘winning the peace in the Middle East”


Introduction to Terry Schmidt

1. How did you get into project management?

My interest for project management began in high school when my student club volunteered to cook breakfast on opening day of fishing season. The 4 a.m. breakfast started out badly as our disorganized volunteers dished out burned hotcakes and runny eggs to a growing line of hungry fishermen. I stepped in and clarified the deliverables (plates of edible food), then managed the people and processes without knowing what PM was all about. Soon the fishermen were smiling and I was hooked on project management.

During college I was an aerospace engineering intern at NASA working on the Saturn-Apollo program moon-landing program. There I buried my nose in the project and program management books.

While studying MBA program at Harvard Business School, I focused on strategy execution, which requires effective project management. Then I became a project management consultant helping teams sharpen their strategy and launching critical projects off the ground quickly, which is what I do today.

2. What person or book informs your approach to project management?

Strategic Project Management Made Simple by Terry SchmidtThe best book that summarizes my approach is my own book, Strategic Project Management Made Simple: Practical Tools for Leaders and Teams (Wiley 2009). This book features the Logical Framework Approach, a robust methodology which combines the best concepts from strategic planning, project management, the scientific method, and risk analysis into an interactive framework. This is one of the best PM methodology books out there, according to the Amazon rankings and testimonials.

The Logical Framework was originally created for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank to plan, implement, and evaluate complex projects in developing countries. For many years, I trained project leaders and teams in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to use this system. Later on, I adapted the LogFrame Approach to the needs of business and technology organizations. My corporate clients are big fans of the Logical Framework Approach because it helps them to rapidly design and roll out all types of projects from a strategic perspective.

3. What was the most challenging project you’ve worked on?

Helping the Sultan of Oman “win the peace” after they had “won the war” was extremely challenging Oman is a small Arab Sheikdom on the Arabian Sea that was wracked by insurgency during the 1980’s. The Sultan needed to create stability after the conflict ended.

I spent 6 fascinating weeks facilitating a group of government leaders in creating a solution to help the Sultan develop permanent communities so that the nomadic tribes would settle down rather than continually move in search of water. This meant building infrastructure such as water wells, schools, hospitals, and mosques, as well as government system and offices. This infrastructure would encourage people to build houses and create stable villages. The results were highly successful, and today Oman is a progressive country and a strong ally.


Project Management Strategy Section

4. What are the greatest challenges project managers face regarding strategy?

Without a doubt, the greatest challenge is understanding the big picture. Project managers typically get involved long after the larger strategic questions have been answered at a higher level. PMs are given the “what” without understanding the “why”. As a result, they describe project success as providing deliverables on time and within budget, when the real goal is solving the underlying larger business problem the project was designed to address. There is a huge difference between tactical and strategic project thinking, and PMs who can do both hold the golden ticket to career success.

5. How do “housekeeping projects” (e.g. upgrade database from version 1 to version 2) relate to strategy?

Housekeeping projects are tactical components of larger strategic themes. The strategic part begins with understanding the context and larger purpose behind the effort. Why upgrade? What new capabilities are needed? How will this benefit us? Housekeeping projects aren’t always exciting but they are necessary.

6. What strategic problems do Project Management Offices (PMOs) face today? How has this changed compared to 10 years ago?

The big issue remains how to systematically turn strategic intent into actionable projects. Converting good ideas into action and getting results is a tricky business because the critical strategic issues are more complex than a decade ago and involve multiple players. Sheparding the process is more difficult than ever, and the PMO must strike a delicate balance to keep all the stakeholders engaged.
PMOs must stay agile and tweak the process and make the right decisions. They must remain flexible to manage project flow, keep the portfolio balanced, and expand their organization’s capacity.

7. Strategy documents can sometimes be vague or difficult to apply. Can you share an example of an organization strategy that helped project managers achieve results?

The best strategy is to “start smart” at the beginning through Rapid Action Planning training. These intensive training sessions are facilitated action-focused workshops which help a team navigate from the “fuzzy front end” to a solid project design quickly. This process follows the four strategic questions built into the Logical Framework Approach:

1. What are we trying to accomplish and why?
2. How will we measure success?
3. What assumptions are we making?
4. How do we get there?

I’ve seen too many project management teams jump prematurely to the tactical level and get caught up in the “activity trap”. Gantt charts, and similar tools may be necessary, but they are not the place to start. Invest time thinking about causal connections, strategic hypotheses, and success measures up-front. Make sure you thoroughly understand the big picture of the “what” and the “why” you’re trying to accomplish, and clarify your strategy as a series of inter-related objectives (see the reference article: Turn Strategy Into Action).

Learning Strategy Section

8. How do you recommend project managers learn about strategy in their organizations?

  • Get curious and be pro-active.
  • Have strategy conversations with their executives and peers.
  • Ask questions, starting with your reporting chain. Identify how your organization develops strategy, what the process is, who gets involved when and how.
  • Network! Widen your circle of acquaintances. Get to know a broader group of people from different parts of the organization.

Here’s a career tip: Position yourself to be a member of strategic planning efforts and new initiatives task forces. This serves a dual purpose: it gives you exposure to what is going on, and makes you visible, thus building your brand and creating future opportunities.

In addition, read some good books on strategy and get involved with the Association for Strategic Planning to stay on top of new ideas and best practices.

9. In your role as a project management educator, how should we introduce students to strategy?

Give students simple strategy tools they can immediately apply to their projects. I teach strategy and project management courses at the UCLA Extension Technical Management Program. There, my student assistants have applied my Logical Framework Approach to manage their student professional chapters and to build a solar powered car as part of a national competition. Make project management relevant and simple, and students will learn to love it.

10. Based on your experience, how would you rate the maturity of the project management profession in operating at a strategic level? What opportunities do you see for growth in this area?

I prefer rating to the maturity of individuals, not an entire profession. Most PMs I meet wear methodological blinders, believing that the PMBOK methodology provides all the wisdom they need. This view is myopic in fast-changing times.

Certainly many PMs are capable of thinking at the strategic level, but not all have that chance unless they are proactive. That’s why stepping out of the comfort zone is so important. Be curious. Take a chance on doing something big and scary. That’s how you grow.

11. Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?

To learn more and get free resources my approach, visit my website.

You can contact me by email at terrydeanschmidt AT gmail DOT com and read further details about my work at my website:


Get The Friday 5 Email Newsletter

Productivity Tips, Resources & Hacks Delivered Every Friday!

Powered by ConvertKit

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “Project Management Strategy from NASA and Beyond