Strategic project management bridges the gap between the lofty ambitions of strategists and staff that do the work. Strategy without projects is just another document collecting dust. Projects without strategic importance quickly lose their appeal.
When you’re disconnected from strategy, the daily grind is tough. You lurch from one crisis to another. It’s the old curse of the corporate firefighter.
From time to time, we all need to fight fires. But if that’s all you do, you may eventually run out of buildings. To continue the metaphor, a strategic approach compels you to prevent fires rather than simply fighting them as they emerge. Let’s find out more about how strategy makes a difference.
Strategic Project Management Lessons From Proctor & Gamble
In their book “Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works,” Roger L. Martin and A.G. Lafley, explore strategy at Proctor & Gamble, one of the largest companies in the world. I found their definition of strategy memorable:
Strategy therefore requires making explicit choices – to do some things and not others – and building a business around those choices. In short, strategy is choice. More specifically, strategy is an integrated series of choices that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.
Playing To Win shows how well P&G’s strategic choices significantly improved the company’s results. According to the authors, P&G doubled its sales (and quadrupled its profits) from 2000 to 2009 as a result of strategic choices. In recent years, some competitors have copied P&G’s strategic choices with success.
Good project managers understand that no strategy remains valuable forever.
Strategy Meets Project Management
Strategy directly shapes decisions about products, pricing and other matters. In fact, that’s an excellent way to assess your strategy – does it give you a framework to make decisions and achieve results? If not, the strategy needs further development. A strategy that you cannot apply to work has no value.
Once you make strategic choices, you can move forward. If organization is struggling to achieve its current strategy or pursuing new goals, projects are the answer. Even if your organization is focused on the status quo, the world is constantly changing. You need projects simply to maintain your position relative to competitors.
Want to achieve an ambitious strategy? Get strategic project managers.
Strategic Project Management Clarifies Priorities
Whether you are managing a single project or a set of projects, the need to manage priorities is ever present. As an example, let’s say your organization has made a strategic choice to obtain college educated customers aged 30-40 in large cities. This customer strategy will impact every aspect of your work and how you approach projects
1-Simplify Decision Making
When you have a clear strategy, decision making becomes much easier. When you read a change request to study the young adult demographic (16-25), you can turn it down by referencing the organization’s customer strategy. Remember to let the person down gently – nobody likes hearing bad news.
Tip: Still struggling with making decisions? Good news – read 10 Tips for Making Better Project Decisions on the Liquid Planner Blog.
2-Start The Day With Priorities (Not Email)
How many times have you come into the office and immediately started with reading email? I’m certainly guilty of this bad habit myself. The habit is driven by curiosity (what’s happening in the world?), ego (did anybody mention me on social media?) and other factors.
By starting your day with email, you focus on the urgent instead of the important.
Instead of email, star the day by developing one task that will advance your strategy. In the case of engaging with a new customer segment, that task could be reading a market research report. You could also contact influential people in the demographic and seek them out for interviews.
Tip: Listen to the Manager Tools podcast “Got Email?” for further guidance on effective email habits.
3-Prioritize Your Energy
How energetic do you feel at 10am vs 4pm? If you’re like most people, you tend to have more energy in the morning before your will power is consumed.
To improve your results, schedule work on your strategic priorities in the morning. The productive output of 4pm meetings is not quite zero, but it is close. If your project depends on enthusiasm, creativity or problem solving, ignoring energy levels is a recipe for failure.
Tip: Want more advice on how to manage yourself? Read “Here’s The Schedule Very Successful People Follow Every Day” by Eric Barker.
4-Link Project Budgets To Strategy
Allocating money and other resources is a clear signal of an organization’s priorities. If you’re managing a project management office, strategy must guide your decisions. You may be tempted to use other criteria such as working on technically interesting projects. It’s important to resist that temptation in order to achieve your strategy.
Without resources and support, your strategy becomes yet another unread PDF.
Strategy Guides Effective Project Management Offices
According to Gartner research in 2013, 68% of stakeholders perceive their PMOs to be bureaucratic. (Source: Why PMOs Fail: 5 Shocking PMO Statistics)
Project management offices are increasingly popular in large organizations. In some firms, PMOs operate similar to a financial reporting department – issuing reports, measuring spending and other monitoring responsibilities. That’s only the beginning. Strategic PMOs can make a greater contribution by shaping programs and portfolios.
“Great project managers don’t just report on the news, they drive the news.”
The same can be said of project strategists and project management offices. Reactive professionals ask the question: “what will the executives think of me?” Instead, the question needs to be “What can I do today to advance the organization’s strategy?”
5- Prepare Yourself To Contribute To Strategy
Seventy five percent of high performing organizations call on their project management offices to contribute to strategic planning (source: The State of the Project Management Office (PMO) 2014).
If you’re already active in the project management office, then you need to get up to speed on strategy. On the other hand, if you’re a growing project professional, you may have limited input on strategy today. That means you have time to educate yourself and prepare. The resources section at the end of this article will guide you down the strategic path.
6- Focus on Organizational Ambition Over Personal Glory
Many, if not all, people want to be recognized and admired for their work. Unfortunately, some leaders seek personal glory at the cost of the organization. At the CEO level, a relentless drive for glory means previous little time for developing other leaders.
For project managers, seek out what the organization needs. Fight the urge to focus solely on problems or challenges you encounter. It might be satisfying to complete the ERP implementation, but is that what the organization really needs?
Tip: Read the Chapter 2 (Level 5 Leadership) in “Good To Great” by Jim Collins for an additional evidence showing that leaders ambitious for the organizations deliver better results.
7- Revisit Strategic Progress Often
“What’s measured improves.”- Peter Drucker. Applies to project work!
In some organizations, strategy is an annual exercise. For a few days (or weeks), a great deal of energy goes into developing the document. You may even have an off-site session at a nearby hotel.
All that expense and effort goes to waste unless you revisit the strategy and measure progress. Measuring progress doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply add an agenda item to your weekly or monthly staff meeting to review the strategy.
Strategic Project Management: Further Reading
I love exploring “further reading” sections in books to gain further insights. In fact, Ryan Holiday recommends this reading approach when tackling a large subjects like the Civil War. This section provides a short introduction to resources that help you explore strategy.
1-Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works by Roger L. Martin and A.G. Lafley.
Strategy books sometimes lack clear examples. Throughout the book, the authors provided in-depth examples of how Proctor & Gamble approached strategic questions. To their credit, the authors also discuss strategic failures at P&G.
Bonus: Get a free chapter of “Playing To Win” from the publisher here.
2-The State of the Project Management Office (PMO) 2014. PM Solutions.
Project Management Offices (PMOs) are one of the best ways for project professionals to contribute to the strategic conversation. Strategists understand the importance of studying what colleagues are doing. Read this report from PM Solutions to learn what others are doing.
Based on a survey of more than 3,000 professionals around the world, this report gives an excellent overview of the state of strategic project management. The report includes a forward by Mark A. Langley, President and CEO of the Project Management Institute.
From this report, I learned that many executives are anxious about the pace of change. I also learned that project management is valued. Yet, there are also lingering doubts regarding on time delivery of projects.
4-Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
Choosing where to compete is a key strategic decision for every organization. This classic strategy book from 2005 provides a road map to that question. If your work involves selecting or designing new offerings for customers, this book will be especially valuable.
Did you know that corporate strategy as we know it today was created in the 1960s? To learn more about where corporate strategy came from and where it is going, read this book. IF you’re seeking a broad introduction to multiple strategy thinkers, you may want to consider “The Financial Times guide to the gurus strategy : the top 20 strategic thinkers and what they can do for you” by Vaughan Evans.
6-How the Mighty Fall: A Primer on the Warning Signs by Jim Collins.
Studying decline of great organizations began with Edward Gibbons`s research landmark books on the Roman Empire. In this short 2009 Business Week article, Jim Collins explores the warning signs that indicate that decline is approaching. Even the best strategy (and the most successful project manager) needs to change and adapt from time to time.
7- Project Management Strategy Series by Bruce Harpham (hey, that’s me!)
My first article on strategy – What’s Keeping Project Managers From The C-Suite? – makes the point that strategy is the missing piece of the puzzle barring project managers from the executive suite. As October develops, more articles will be published here exploring strategic project management.