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?
“Because I said so…”. This is a “powerful” sentence that (almost) every child has heard at least once. When they are criticized, misunderstood or just denied of what they want (with no explanation whatsoever), a child’s first impulse is either to dissolve into tears and/or to push back, puffing and woofing angrily towards the “repressor/enemy” (usually an adult). They want to show that they are in pain (psychologically) and frustrated.
But when you are 4 or 5 or 7 years old, it’s almost impossible to describe eloquently your state of mind, your emotions. It’s much easier to display them. This is why, in those particular moments, children begin to shout, whimper or scream. They actually begin to (what psychologist call) act-out (their feelings/emotions/ frustrations).
And guess what? In the adult world, it’s almost the same.
As adults, we learn to restrain (even repress) ourselves from physically exhibiting our (deep) emotions. We try to explain them, rationalise them as much as possible. However, as soon as somebody is “pushing” (harder) our buttons, we tend to return to our inner (indignant) child. We sulk, puff and woof, retreating from that conversation or, quite the opposite, retaliating in a strong, powerful manner. And, more often than we think, we want to protect ourselves by being more offensive. Instead of understanding our fears, insecurities and self-doubts, we block them and, most importantly, we turn them back on our opponent/”enemy”.
Didn’t you feel, after a dense, heated conversation and after you had time to cool off, that you might have just overreacted? That some of the actions you took and/or replies you uttered seemed (after you cooled off) exaggerated and inflamed considering the light weight of the topic itself?
That’s because you acted-out your state of mind. In that particular moment, the anger you experienced came from the fear that you will not get what you need/want, that you are not loved, not respected, not included/accepted by the group.
Isn’t that exactly how it was when we were kids, only with more psychological “baggage” accumulated over the years? We are adults now, we can be angry and fight back with more power and more means. We can win this one - not like when we were kids.
Oh, this is such an illusion…
Now, imagine all of these for an individual in a leadership position. The number of threats and (possible) conflicts rise exponentially. Higher expectations and greater ambition bring an increased level of stress and anxiety. All of the repressed fears, emotions find an easier way to surface and the individual (the leader?!?) is more prone to act-out in difficult times such as short deadlines, conflicting teams, disgruntled employees, stressful projects and more. Just like in childhood, acting-out brings (most of the time) many disadvantages and problems in any human relation.
Obviously, we wonder if we can avoid these situations as much as possible or, at least, reduce their probability. It’s hard to give a recipe for such a complex psychological matter.
However, I would venture a guess and offer three key elements that, in my opinion, any individual should focus on if she/he wants to be a better person (and, consequently, a better leader). As a side note - these are also core elements of servant leadership and promoted as such.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure. Emotions, sensations, feelings, fears: all of them are part of a “world” that constitutes the foundation of any relationship; being personal or professional. Therefore, we must not ignore them but try to understand and have them work for our benefit as individuals, especially, for the ones aspiring to lead.
To be the leader everyone expects today, we need to heal the “wounds” from yesterday or, at least, acknowledge and start working on them. And this is the toughest leadership decision that any of us wishing to lead has to make.
Are you up for it?
In a recent HBR article on strategic prioritization by the current chair of PMI, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, I read about a tool he uses aptly called Hierarchy of Purpose. This tool helps in understanding an organization’s purpose, methods of pursuing it and its strategic vision; what is of utmost importance over the next few years; what projects should be resourced “to the hilt” that align, as well as which should be scrapped; who the best people are to involve; and, what outcome-related targets should be set.
I think this is a great tool that ties in perfectly with portfolio management, organizational [servant, I hope] leadership, stakeholder engagement and of course the programs and projects that result from the portfolio.
But what really intrigued me was Antonio's comments about conflicting messages coming from an executive team. The example he cited, more eloquently than I could, was about an organization telling their people they had two main strategic priorities: Efficiency and Customer Satisfaction. He then related a brief story about how someone delivering a parcel was invited into their customer’s office for a chat. The person first thought “Yes! Customer Satisfaction, here I come!”, was immediately supplanted by the second thought “Oops - where is the efficiency in that?” See the conflict?
How often do we get conflicting and unclear priorities from our leadership team and what should we as project managers and servant leaders do when that happens? I believe it is up to us to be crystal clear in OUR understanding of priorities so that WE can be crystal clear in our decision-making and in relaying the same priorities to our teams. Would a servant leader simply accept what was said verbatim from senior members of our team? I think not. It takes a lot of nerve to point out the need for clarity, the need for priorities that are not both number one and the need for a change in messaging. What senior executive would not welcome such courage from a more junior leader?
So, once we understand the business priorities and have clarified where the focus should be, how do we instill this into the project team? Knowing and understanding with clarity is the first step. Communicating it clearly is the second. Communicating to the team, to the stakeholders, to the customers if applicable. Making decisions in any project becomes much easier when that shining star representing the organization's strategic and focused goals can be seen clearly and followed to a successful conclusion. Just like those three wise men who were said to have followed a star around this time of year a few thousand years ago.
How clearly does your executive teams express the strategic goals of your organization? Can you make autonomous decisions firm in the knowledge that you clearly understand both the goals and the priorities? How do you communicate this to your teams?
Food for thought.
But during this time of year, one should be clearly focusing on food for the tummy. And with that, I wish everyone celebrating during this time a wonderful holiday season and all the best in 2017.
European Soccer Championship ended recently. Leaving aside the flashy shows and the mediocre organisation, I was really puzzled by the difference in several teams’ behaviors. And this is not about their (sometimes boring) technical performance. This is, actually, related more to the (so-called) soft, human side of their achievements.
Let me tell a short story. More than 15 years ago during another European Championship, one of the qualified team was excluded (the name is not important) due to some political issues. . Officials replaced them with a runner up team from the qualifying stages. These guys were already on vacation, enjoying (literally) a really hot summer at the beach. They managed to get together in an unbelievably short period of time. But, their main goal for the Championship was basically to not make a fool of themselves. They had almost no training, they barely assembled a team of twenty young and not so famous players and, at the same time, they were tired after a very long season.
The first match was a disaster. They were butchered by the opposing team and showed a lot of weaknesses. Everybody was laughing and gave them no chances of winning even one game. But, they actually did it: they won the next one. And the next one. And the next one. And so the pattern continued.. They made it into the finals and...won the Championship! I repeat - with almost no training or practice games, with the smallest team of all teams in the competition and, most surprisingly, with young and obscure players. They managed to go against many odds and beat teams with a lot of notorious and famous members.
Many experts dissected and tried to explain this unforeseen success. Motivation, team spirit, strong desire - these were a few of the critical factors that were pushed as the foundation of the outsiders’ winning strategy. However, for me, something was missed or, at least, less explored. It’s related again to motivation and I saw it againat the recently-ended Championship.
The specialists credit as favorites for winning the tournament the teams with the biggest number of famous, skilled players. As soon as a national team has a lot of well-known, valuable players who won many international competitions (with their club team), it is automatically considered powerful and ready to win. Still, nobody is wondering if the team members can still be motivated and engaged.
They have everything - money, fame, prizes. They even won (take Spain example) a European and a World Championship. Even more, they come after long seasons, they want vacation and a large part of them are almost at the end of their prestigious career.
What strategy should the coach use in order to make that interior “engine” run one more time? “Money and fame” means little to these players. Transferring to another team? 90% of them already play or played at the biggest soccer clubs around the world. So, is there anything that can move them?
I could find only one answer - servant leadership. Helping others to grow, inspiring people, becoming appreciated and caring leaders - these might be (probably) the only triggers that would work in this situation. For mature, great players, the possibility of being servant leaders would ignite a big internal “fire”. They already have the tangible. They need the inner, intangible push in order to feel motivated. Hailing their authority (and not the power) will bring the desired thirst for fighting and winning every match again.
It might not be the only solution. But, we definitely should try it. I am pretty confident that we will move from “I need to be here” to “I want to be here” attitude. And then, for sure, we will have a more interesting tournament. Do you agree?
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?