Project Management

3 Ways To Become A Strategic Project Manager

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By Dave Wakeman

You don’t have to be a great philosopher to understand that our business environment has changed tremendously over the last few years. One result of all this change is that organizations now rely more heavily on projects to deliver on their strategic efforts.

Instead of considering this a problem, project managers should look at it as a huge opportunity to act more strategically and add value to their roles. We should work with executive leadership to help deliver successful projects aligned with the overall organizational strategy.

Many organizations have just begun to incorporate project management into their strategic delivery. Here are three ways you can align yourself with your organization’s strategy to take advantage of the shifting dynamics in the business environment.

1. Always jump to “why?”

I tell my clients that everything we do in an organization is driven by the answer to one simple question: Why?

As a project manager looking to jump into the strategic deployment of projects, you must move from implementer to strategic partner.

As a strategic partner, you want to get out in front of projects that you suspect won’t be successful from the start. To do so, always ask yourself, “Why this is important?” or “Why isn’t this important?” By being driven by the “why,” you can take control of wayward or poorly aligned projects.

Onecautionary note: When you explain that the project isn’t in alignment with the organizational strategy, you need to offer some alternatives.

2. Pay close attention to the business environment surrounding your organization and project.

As someone close to the implementation of the strategy, you will have a great vantage point to recognize and diagnose any challenges that might impede your team’s progress. You are also likely to be much closer to changes that present opportunities, technologies that will expedite delivery or unresolved issues that may derail the project.

The key is to stop thinking about just your individual project, and begin to think about how your project plays in the overall strategy. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, you should step into the conversation about how the project is working or not working with the organization’s strategy. But be prepared to explain how you got there and how you can get things back in order.

3. Think in terms of outcomes.

As a project manager in a project-driven organization, you’ll need to think and manage based on outcomes. This is in part because the demographics of our workforces are changing from on-site, lifelong employees to remote teams, project-driven workforces and employees who are looking for higher degrees of balance in their lives.

This makes outcome-based objectives a key component of delivering on the strategic promise of the organization. And it means you need to give up the idea that you can or should try to control every activity in your project.

It also means you are likely going to have to focus more on opening clear communication lines with your team and key stakeholders so you can communicate the importance of these outcomes in the context of the organization’s strategy.

How is your role becoming more strategic, and how do you drive strategic thinking in your projects? Let me know what I missed. 

By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com 

Posted by David Wakeman on: May 22, 2015 08:40 AM | Permalink

Comments (12)

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Dave, to start moving into a more strategic role, is it as simple as starting to ask the right questions or do you also need to let your stakeholders and sponsors know what your intentions are? Can this transition sometimes surprise people when you all of a sudden start asking different questions?

Kevin, that's a really good question...and I probably should have mentioned this in the piece.

I think the best way to handle strategic questions is head on by telling your sponsors that you want to ask them some questions about how the project fits into the strategic goals of the organization. If there is resistance, I would say something like, "I want to make sure that when we reach crossroads or ambiguous moments in the project, I have an understanding of where this project fits so that I can make decisions and consult you accordingly."

I do think it can be jarring when you start asking these different kinds of questions, but at the same point, they should be welcomed if you ask them from the standpoint of trying to make the organization stronger and are honestly attempting to help the organization bring projects to their conclusion in the most effective manner possible.

David, the world has indeed changed for project managers. As execution/implementation of strategy almost always means change and the line managers in the past have not excelled at this, organizations now start to use project management to execute strategic initiatives. Not exactly because they are projects, but because lots of project managers typically are outcome oriented and therfore do deliver.
I totally agree with you, that it is important for PMs to know how their projects fit into the bigger picture and should ask "Why" as I''''ve personally experienced more than one project for which the scope as defined by the sponsor actually covered not all parts of the strategic aspects so that even perfectly fulfilling the mission would have meant failure. Similarly PMs need to pay close attention to the business environment in order to be able to address the necessary changes to a project in order to make it a success even when the initial mandate and assumptions do not apply anymore.

However, I agree with Kevin that it is not always so simple. It sure makes sense to ask the sponsor and the stakeholders about the strategical fit of a project, but it should be clear that their view may not be the same as that of C-Level execs. And I would strongly recommend to prevent myself looking like I openly second-guess the sponsor by contacting someone higher up and even more I'd be very careful how to bring up the topic of changes to a project that I feel to be necessary to better align it with the strategy.

David

Agree with Thilo ... If you question the Project Sponsor / Initiator about the fitment of the project to the Organization strategy, you would essentially be questioning their judgement. Unless the organization is exceptionally open to such questions, this would be a dangerous minefield to step into.

An alternative approach would be to ask the same question from a point of view of wanting to learn. Wanting to learn the Organization strategy, how the project fits into the Org strategy, what comes next - these are great directions to go for, and this will be appreciated by the Senior Managers/ Executives that you are speaking to, even more so when you start turning around and leveraging your insight to drive business improvements during project execution.

Further, at some point down the line you may be appreciated as a Project Manager with Business SME skills. At that point, questioning the fitment of a project into the Org strategy may be better appreciated.

Thoughts?

I know it would probably be naive to think that a project could be green lighted when in fact the project doesn't have a direct linkage to the organization's strategy, or when the linkage isn't fully fleshed out. Some of the causes of this could be if a sponsor wants to implement a pet project, or if an organization is looking to spend funds before fiscal year end in order to sustain future budget levels. It also seems that a project manager could be assigned to a project when s/he had no direct input at the strategic decisionmaking/business case analysis stage. If a PM were to inherit a project that did not appear to be strategically aligned, what would a strategically-minded PM do?

I agree 100% with the basic starting point of asking "Why?". You won't ever know what's strategically a priority or a problem at the executive level until you seek more information. With that in hand, comes our capacity to provide valuable input as project managers. We see the world through the details and can provide critical and practical advice.

In this era of endless budgetary constraint, constantly evolving technologies and the need for organizational agility, no project that isn't strategically aligned should be moving forward - at least that's my opinion.


Thinking further on the question that Michael Perez raised - "If a PM were to inherit a project that did not appear to be strategically aligned, what would a strategically-minded PM do?" - I believe there are a few key questions that should be answered before the PM starts actively managing the project:

1. Who is the Project Sponsor, and what is his/ her level in the Organization ?
2. What are the Project objectives, as per the Project Sponsor ?
3. How are the Project Objectives conflicting with/ misaligned with the Organizational strategy ?
4. What is the criticality / impact of not achieving the Project objectives ?
5. Would the project continue to have Executive support when it is being executed, given the misalignment with Org strategy ?


Thank you for all of the really thoughtful replies and comments.

This is a topic that obviously hits close to home for all of us.

Sujith's questions are really thoughtful and will help you clarify any thoughts and concerns about the project.

Michael's point needs emphasis. In many of the organization's it isn't just that a project is given the go-ahead with lack of alignment, many times it is worse...because the project and the strategy haven't been fully fleshed out. Which is even more troubling.

Great read. In my opinion an organization's strategy should drive all projects. If a project isn't aligned with a strategy, it shouldn't be done.

I agree that asking the questions can be a good first step. I further agree, all projects need to be strategically aligned. One of the added benefits, of asking the right questions early, will be A) identify possible projects that should not move forward and B)help strength PM in lower maturity organizations by identifying "projects" that are really operations.

Interesting - thanks for sharing

Dear David
Interesting your perspective on the topic: "3 Ways To Become A Strategic Project Manager"
Thanks for sharing

Important points to remember:
1. Always jump to “why?”
2. Pay close attention to the business environment surrounding your organization and project
3. Think in terms of outcomes.

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