A recent question on Quora prompted me to spend 20 minutes writing an answer because I believe it to be a critically important question.
The question was "How is strategic management used in project execution?" I didn't really want to answer that question, so I indulged myself and changed it to “How does project management fit with strategic management?”
Organizations must have a strategy. If they don’t, let’s just stop the conversation here.
Strategy needs to have a plan of execution. It is of no use for a bunch of executives to fly to some resort somewhere and dream up a strategy, then fly back, dispersing it to the minions, expecting that they will run off in all directions implementing it exactly as they envisioned. Strategy without execution is no more than a puff of smoke. It is where the rubber meets the sky, as we used to say at Michelin Tires.
Now let’s talk about projects. This is where the rubber meets the road. Others may have said that Projects are used to execute a strategy, and therefore must be aligned with the strategy.
I take a slightly different view. That is, Portfolios of Programs and Projects must align with the Strategic Intent of the organization.
Portfolios are often based on business units, answering the question “To be successful, what set of Programs and Projects must my part of the organization execute over this period of time, and for which I have funding, in order to meet the business goals set out for my part of the organization, interleaving with other parts of the organization?” The period of time may be a year, three years, five years or more; or changing continuously as in Agile Organizations - another topic.)
So you might ask, “What is a Program, then?”. I’m glad you asked.
A Program is a series of inter-related, and possibly inter-dependent projects, all of which must be executed to achieve a business benefit or set of benefits. That is, if any one of the projects is not executed (not necessarily at the same time), the business benefit cannot be achieved.
So - Projects are part of Programs (and for various reasons, if we define it this way, we must also say that a Program may contain many Projects or even only one Project). Projects deliver products, usually on time, on budget and to the desired level of quality using either traditional (predictive) or Agile (adaptive) methods. Products of projects are used to realize the benefits defined in the strategy and in this way set the stage for delivery of benefits, albeit not the actual benefits themselves. Benefits Realization Management is another topic for another day.
So how does all this answer the [modified] question?
Strategy is a must-have for any organization. Implementation or execution of Strategy has to be funded and planned. The best way to do this, in my view, is through Business-defined Portfolios containing Programs and Projects, that are created to be in lock-step with the Strategy, and through which executives who created the strategy cause their vision to become a reality.
It goes without saying that executives who implement their Strategies this way must provide the organizational resources required: their personal support, funding, people, and careful attention to change and how it will impact the organization. This raises the specter of Organizational Change Management, also a topic for another day.
I believe executives who set strategy and then empower their people to deliver it, providing the required resources and support whenever they need it, represent the epitome of Servant Leaders. Set the direction, trust your people and give them what they need to do the job.
What do you think? What is happening in your organizations? Is strategy delivery baked into your DNA? Or is it an annual talk about corporate vision that does little but excite people for a few hours a year?
This past winter I helped coach a recreational league high school basketball team for my son. I am always up for the challenge of coaching a youth sport for our town. Over the years, I have coached lacrosse, soccer, baseball, and most recently basketball. There are many challenges to a successful season, and at this level success isn’t always defined as how many wins a team can get. It sure helps with morale, but the most important gauge of success is that a player has become a better player playing for the team I coached. That being said, I find myself pulling from my Project Management background in so many areas. Utilizing the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the work has helped tremendously in making the whole experience for the other coaches, the players, and the parents a smooth and enjoyable one. I thought it would be fun to look at the areas that I have pulled from.
Initiating can be hectic. Luckily, most of the parents and other coaches also realize that the number of wins isn’t the only way to have a successful season. This all starts way before a team is actually put together. We need to meet with the full league, secure gym time, set up a way for players to sign up, and figuring out and coordinating the practice and game schedules.
Planning, for me, is the fun part. We finally are ready with lists of players and it’s time for tryouts. Similarly to hiring an employee that you are going to work with on projects, we always focus on how coachable the kids are. This doesn’t mean that they are the best at the sport, but it means that they are ready and willing to learn. The same goes for business. If everyone focused on all stars for projects, we may do well on that one project, but it is important to also train other players for other projects and for the future. A good project team is a blend of experienced, motivated individuals with multiple skills. On a basketball team, we want everyone to come to practice with an open mind. Sure, it helps to have teammates who can shoot and score, but it sure helps having someone that may be good at defense, or great at bench morale. These all make for a great team and a fun experience.
Executing comes in many forms, especially during a season. Each game requires execution; from the players and the coaches. On a project team, executing well allows the team to succeed at their ultimate goal of successfully finishing the project on time and on budget. Executing plays is what is required of the players, while figuring out player matchups and what the other team may be throwing at us is what is required of the coaches.
Controlling in terms of a sports team can be broken down in a couple of different parts. Off the field, there are a lot of moving parts, most of which are coordinating various schedules, vacations, carpooling, and the occasional sicknesses… making sure that we have enough players to play in each game. On the field, or court in the case of basketball, we as coaches must look at the players as individual parts of the team. We need to ensure that they are not getting worn out, not getting into foul trouble, and, ideally, trying to control the other team enough to win the game. I did mention that winning isn’t everything, but it sure is part of a competitive sport.
Closing the season out can be in the form of a playoff run. But, more than that, it is important to make sure that the team’s goals have been satisfied and hopefully a handful of them are willing to come back for another season. Having a team that has been together for one year can drastically help ease startup of the next season. On a project team, there will be turnover due to promotions, change of job, retirement, etc… but making sure that they are all motivated to be successful again on another new project is the ultimate goal.
In conclusion, project management practices help me make my personal and professional lives much easier to handle. If anything, from coaching a sport or being part of a project management team, it has allowed me to break down a sometimes daunting task to one that is much more manageable and enjoyable. Applied in judicious amounts, I believe project management practices will also help you: at work, in the community and at home.
The word “servant” triggers (in many situations) goose-bumps on individuals aspiring to be leaders. We are wired to perceive it as a “status-reducing” label, as a way to mark the limits for a second-class role (or, even worse, an individual). Associating it with strong, powerful noun - like leadership or leader - doesn’t make it better.
In fact, in this case - servant leadership or servant leader - the term “servant” (officially, a noun) is perceived more like an adjective, diminishing the force of its more famous associate. I always look at people’s faces when this topic is brought to the table. I actually started a little experiment. When asked about what I am most passionate about and what my favourite speaking topic is, I answer first with “I am really into [or] I really like to speak about leadership…”. My conversational partner’s face lights up (“Oh, another one…” - he might be thinking) and he asks - ready to share and engage in a small debate - “What kind of leadership?”.
As soon as the “infamous” association - servant leadership - leaves my mouth, the just-created magic disappears. I can see disorientation and confusion in my interlocutor’s eyes. The comfortable smile is replaced by a suspicious scowl and, most probably, questions start popping into his or her mind - “What the hell is this? You are either a servant, or a leader. Are you mocking me?”
The reduction-effect of “servant” upon “leadership” - which I described earlier - is almost instantaneously present. Everybody loves Leadership and are willing to talk about this “amazing, sensible and always up-to date” topic. We need leaders and leadership. They are vital for our success, for our well-being, for our society. But...Servant Leadership? Servant Leaders? It seems to degrade the powerful noun.... leadership - as we were wired to perceive it.
We put our leaders on a really high pedestal. Even if they don’t want to be there, we elevate them. In many situations, this is the only way we can see (as in “perceive”) them as leaders. We need to see them at any moment, to have them in front, (literally) leading the way. Our leaders have to pull us and help us achieve a strong pace to the target. Otherwise, they are not the leaders we expected, the leaders who can take us there no matter what. How can we trust a leader who is actually behind us, gently pushing, not pulling and, most of all, serving us?
The way I see it, this sorry situation is triggered by two main factors:
As I recall, coming back to my little experiment, no conversation about Servant Leadership ends up in a dull, boring way. The majority of my interlocutors smile politely and either change the subject or excuse themselves, leave or engage in another conversation. I get it - we might not be ready for this. Re-wiring our brains can be hard and takes a long time.
However, I have seen individuals (it’s true, just a small percent) who were stirred and intrigued by the whole idea. Something sparked behind their eyes - maybe just enough to kick-off an internal revolution. This kind of “inception” is the one I am counting on. This is the one bringing more selflessness and less selfishness, more trust, more community and less individuality, more authority and so on and so forth.
As most of you are aware, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines Project Management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” After a summer of fun, I couldn’t help but think that while I manage projects in various areas in my business life, I am surrounded by successful Project Managers every day in my personal life, and so are others. Each and every day you can pick up any newspaper and read a story about projects that were completed, but Project Management is often used as a “scapegoat”. Sure, there are tons of successful projects and most are because Project Management was timely because the Project teams focus on meeting or beating cost, schedule, or scope. But, it made me wonder why we fail so often at something we do so frequently.
So, back to my summer of fun. I had the opportunity to do so many things with my family. Each and every summer I get to go to my favorite place on earth, Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. I am fortunate to have a close group of family members who are able to join every year. There are the usual 15-20 cousins, aunts, and uncles, but we also are lucky enough to have another 15-20 family members who come every few years. Why am I telling you all of this? It’s because I had an epiphany with regards to how much Project Management comes into play when this week comes around. I thought it would be fun to look at the five process groups that entail Project Management Processes (Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring/Controlling, and Closing) and how they really make a successful trip.
As an aside, my immediate family can identify with others living with a Project Manager, especially because of my usual PM focus, but there are occasions where it comes in handy. To give you an idea of how far I have gone, a few years ago I created a spreadsheet for our Disney World visit. You may laugh out loud or more than likely roll your eyes at this point, but I stand by my idiosyncrasies because my family each had requests of what they wanted to see and what they wanted to do. With some timely use of the processes I have learned through the years, everyone was able to see what they wished to see; be it a princess, a parade, or the Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride.
For those who don’t know about Chatham or Cape Cod, it can be treated like any other vacation spot and has tourist traps galore. With upwards of 40 family members all vacationing at once, planning is of utmost importance to avoid those tourist traps. So, on to the initiating phase. There are a handful of us that have been coming here for over 35 years so we usually are the ones who focus on some of the requirements. My older cousin and I usually are the ones who try to sort through all of these requirements since we are part of the original group. However, it’s not to say that we make all of the decisions without input. We need to make sure we take into consideration some of the constraints. This includes pleasing the younger cousins who always have a say in where we go and what they want to see. And there are also the older family members who may have some restrictions such as how mobile they are so care needs to be taken in where we go for some of the all-in family nights (bbq’s, beach nights, and dinner locations). Meeting both the young and the old is always a challenge, but usually dictates the execution, or whatever the activity is, of each phase.
With the use of text messages, plain old sticky notes and scratched notes on sides of old newspapers, we are always able to monitor and control how things are going. And one of the most efficient and relaxing ways of planning at the end of each night is to sit around a fire pit, roasting s’mores or enjoying ice cream and discussing not only how things went that day, but also looking ahead to the next few days. For the newcomers, the veterans of our family vacation always give options based on feedback to try for the next day. All of these Project Management tools come into play way more than I ever thought about. And, with most project close outs it is done with handshakes, hugs and the soon to be patented, “Corcoran sendoff”.
So, what makes all of this possible each and every year with so many people? It is due to the strength of family, but it is also due to the PM skills inherent in us as Project Managers. We are able to successfully get the most out of vacation each and every time because of the process. Sure, we don’t follow the PMBOK for each and everything we do in life, but it sure helps us all in areas that aren’t necessarily sitting at a desk or on a project site. Next time you set out on a family vacation I implore you to think of this approach and see if it might help avoid some sad faces, just like you want to avoid those faces in your professional life.
What do we need to make things work?
In any field, any job, any team, any country - what must we have in order to be sure we are heading to success?
Ask these questions to different people and, for sure, you will get different “ingredients” that are mandatory to complete any task/project/endeavor/work. But, at the same time, in 90% of the cases, one element will always be on the list.
And that element is leadership.
Immaterial and shapeless, always there, but not easy to find, leadership is seen as the panacea for every major challenge. Of course, we don’t ignore the small “pills” from the soft skills batch (e.g. negotiation, motivation etc.) or from the technical assortment (e.g. project management, business analysis etc.). But, every time (lately, at least), the general impression seems to be that they work only in combination with leadership.
According to every (major) “business” book, in order to be successful, you need skills, luck, stars to be aligned correctly and so on. But, apart from all of those, you need leadership!
Every successful recipe and every successful story is not about the despair, the stress and the sick to the stomach that burden the hero before triumph. It’s about how he or she grabs his or her own destiny with bare hands and seizes the right moments, overcoming the challenges. It’s about how he or she exhibits true “leadership”, most of the time, despite the opposition, resistance and/or lack of trust coming from the team or any other stakeholder.
Again, the leadership-panacea worked. The hero-leader “administered” it to the team and it brought results. It doesn’t matter that some of them didn’t respond to this “treatment” or just showed “side-effects” (like demotivation, low efficiency etc.). What matters is that we have another successful story about another “great” leader, ready to share his “unique” example. We have another example of “I did it my way and it worked, thus I am a great leader!”.
And... the tragically comic part is that most of us want it this way. We like the lonely hero (leader?) who manages to get himself or herself “reborn” and wins against all odds, despite the ultimatums.. We are fine with “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” as long as we aren’t the “eggs”. Ultimately, we savor the “winning” stories and most likely, picture ourselves in the same situations, showing the same power, pushing everybody until their last drop and succeeding no matter what.
Then, in this “power-hailing” environment, what are my chances as a Servant Leader?
Servant Leadership is all about promoting a virtuous cycle “serve<->lead”, focusing on the people and not on self and leading with authority, not power. It’s about patience, kindness, respectfulness, commitment, sacrifice. It’s about finding and understanding the “WHY?” for every one of your followers so you can contribute to his or her development. No universal recipe, no panacea and, most important, no you or we but they.
And, even if it is about others-focused, the change has to start with you, as a Servant Leader. It’s not about what I can do with you or to you (as it was in the hero stories mentioned above). It’s about what I can do for you. So, is there any room for Servant Leadership?
We (meaning our two servant leadership trainers from my company) had recently a workshop with several leaders (CEO, CFO, CTO etc) coming from different companies. They wanted to get acquainted with Servant Leadership and see if this can be a good approach for them (they lead teams with 10 or more people). We did an experiment at the beginning and asked every each one of them to tell us their leadership challenges from both directions - as a leader and as a follower. And, for the follower part, we ask them to make an effort and tell us also what they believe the challenges are for their team (their followers). The list that resulted in the end was impressive but, at the same time, pretty common for this level of management: making people understand the vision and becoming more independent, eliminate fear of outsourcing, having people assuming responsibility and ownership and so one and so forth (on the leadership part) and fear, lack of trust, lack of vision etc. (on the follower side).
We asked also for some solutions to attach to this list. And here we had the most interesting revelations:
1. All of the solutions were focused on what to do TO and WITH the people in order to tackle the lack of vision or bringing independence. “FOR the people” was completely ignored.
2. None of the solutions were actually related to the leader himself - what he needs to change in his behaviour and/or his approach. Everything was meant for the other side - the followers
3. None of them even remotely considered the possibility of understanding WHY the people in their teams behave in such a way that they bring these challenges on the table, WHY they express fear, lack of trust etc.
Even more, when we suggested going back and find out the WHY (the root cause, if you like) for each one of the team members, some of them smiled ironically. In their opinion, that “Why” mumbo jumbo is just about motivating and engaging people. And they already did that ONCE in the past! At this moment, they wanted a clear solution (“pill”?) on how to make them independent, on how to eliminate fear and lack of trust. They needed to take action and show the direction to the team. A suggestion to serve by exploring the needs of each member seemed rather ubiquitous, time consuming and useless (as they already did it ONCE).
Basically, the conclusion was that this is a “tough world” and the leader needs to take action now and to decide what’s best for the team. Competition is fierce, results are needed so we don’t have time for “mellow” stuff like concentrating on meeting people’s needs, finding the why, serve and make sure that the team members perform at their highest potential.
Interesting, isn’t it? There were about 15 companies represented there, with more than 1500 employees (all together). For all of them and for all of us looking for great leadership, I keep and convey my message that closes every presentation I do on Servant Leadership: Anyone can be a Servant Leader.
But are we ready for Servant Leadership?