Is Project Management Strategic?

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff.
On the surface, this is one of those questions with an obvious answer: Of Course It Is! However, the question goes much deeper than that, and deserves more exploration. The topic came up in a discussion with a friend and associate, Alex Jalalian (hailing from Iran and Canada) at last Fall’s IPMA Council of Delegates meeting. Alex is studying for a Doctorate in Strategic Project Management. While I encouraged him in his pursuit, the question came up: What books, research, and indeed, published practices support such a discipline?

One source that came to mind was the Cleland/Ireland book, Project Management, Strategic Design and Implementation (Fifth Edition). We like this book because its topic spans from high-level strategic positioning to detailed steps and relationships in successful projects. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Are Project Managers Strategic?

That is a different question than the one above. Strategic vision and thinking must occur in the project environment for project performance to be maximized. But that thinking may not necessarily come from the Project Manager (PM). Sometimes it is best if it does not. Such as in cases of massive organizational transformation. In that case, a Sponsoring group should manage the Strategic Vision, and drive for change. They should reinforce the vision and sustain the change, once the PM goes off to another series of projects.

Some Project Managers are strategic, and some are not. This depends on their preferred style, the size of their projects, and the nature of the projects. It is also affected when others in the organization also participate in their role. It is affected by the training they receive, and the rewards given for applying needed traits. An essential factor: whether the PM is even capable of doing so. We believe the answer to this question is that some are, some are not. Perhaps a more important question is, can your Project Manager be strategic, when needed?

Continuum: Tactical To Strategic

PM practitioners come from different backgrounds. This affects your inclination for strategic thinking. My background involved a progression from Assembler language programmer, to higher-level languages, to systems analyst, to business analyst. Then, I moved to project lead, to project manager, to strategic manager, then to consultant. As a strategic manager, I helped my organization and those we worked with to look out 20-30 years, build a scenario of their market positioning and needs. Then we worked together to figure out the steps needed to get there. Over a 16 year period, I spanned the continuum from Tactical to Strategic.

Yet as a consultant, I found, in the early 1980s, that most companies weren’t that interested in Enterprise Strategy. Instead, they just had a bunch of projects to run. So I took the path of greatest opportunity, and focused on Project and Program Management.

As it happens for many people, my progression that I traced above is in the opposite sequence of the title of this section. Most of us who do move (and many are happy to stay where they are) begin from the tactical, and move more to the abstract. We referred above to the size of the projects in the “Are Project Managers Strategic?” section. We did so with the insight that there are some very interesting observations just on that factor.

For example, I have used Thinking Styles instruments for over 25 years. I do so because they can help us understand our own communication preferences, and those of others. A classic tool is based on the work of Ned Hermann, first at GE, then in his own company. It deals with a Left/Right thinking-style-preferences axis and an Abstract/Concrete axis. The gist is that you have and demonstrate some preferences in each of these areas.

The Tactical to Strategic Journey

Just looking at Abstract/Concrete, or big-picture versus detail-oriented, I found the following pattern: that people who consistently managed projects of a certain size range, tend to develop a consistent pattern. They gradually move from one area to another in their Tactical to Strategic journey:

  • Small Projects—very tactical.
  • Medium Projects—somewhat tactical, somewhat bigger-picture; more balanced.
  • Large Projects—more big-picture, especially when team leads take on the tactical aspects.
  • Initiatives or Programs—very big-picture, with a project organization that covers the continuum.

Note that we document the above size ranges in our Successful Project Profile, here on website. While we have used this sizing since the mid-1980s, we understand that others have their own preferred ranges. Note too, that this is an observed tendency—there are exceptions based on your organization’s needs, and its rewards for certain traits. Yet the trend is evident to most. Part of what makes this a valuable insight is that Thinking Style is malleable. You can move from one set of preferences to any other, over a two-year (or so) period. The only requirements are a recognized business need, and sustaining rewards for “filling the gaps”.

Connecting the Dots

Since the 1980s, we have performed Portfolio Management consulting with many types of organizations. They range from Government, to Consultancies, to Pharma, to Aerospace, to Information Technology groups. Among our consistent questions for prioritizing, staffing and sequencing projects was: how does each project or program relate to your Strategic Plan? In too many cases, people cast nervous glances across the table, and the response came out: “well, we don’t actually have a formal strategic plan.”

In one instance, our project work included one of the Blues (Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a network of health care insurance organizations). Our questions raised an interesting challenge: They had what appeared to be a great Strategic Plan. But no one had managed to “connect the dots” between the high-level, multi-year vision, and their  implementation tactics. Their Project Managers could not grasp, execute and deliver the needed business results. When we asked how this had been achieved in the past, the response was scarey. Most of their Middle Managers, who had done this synthesis, had moved on to other roles, inside and outside the company.

We put together a workshop session for a group of current Middle Managers. The session involved a bit of training, and mostly facilitation. We decomposed their strategies into initiatives along business function lines. Next, we broke those initiatives into a series of less-than-a-year portfolios of projects. We identified the responsibilities for each portfolio, traced the interdependencies between them all, and established progress and success measures. Then, we assigned Project Managers to the first wave. With coaching, in three days this team of business leaders demonstrated their grasp of the continuum from strategic to tactical. They did a stellar job of connecting the dots, and over a four year period, delivered all the portfolios. They implemented their strategic plan!

Are We Too Focused on Triple Constraints?

It is clear to organizations that there must be continuity between their strategic plans and the tactical actions. If they accept that, then why is there the perception (recently argued on some websites) that Project Management is merely tactical? First is that it is easier for many of us to stick with the tactical, technical aspects of the discipline. Easier to assume that it is all about the Triple Constraint, or whatever we call it, than to expand beyond the knowledge areas. Harder to demonstrate the interpersonal skills, the communication effectiveness, and working productively in the organization’s context. Even harder to master the drive for business benefits realization. Most entry-level, knowledge-based PM certifications (except for our IPMA Level-D®) don’t test for all that other stuff. So it must not be important anyway, right?

Yet the lack of improvement in PM Performance, despite billions of U$D spent on PM training, is all too evident. This is just one of the reasons why IPMA established our Advanced Certification series of Performance-competence based assessments. We assess practitioners in their roles, from Project Manager, to Senior Project Manager, to Program Manager. Of course there is a further complicating factor. Too many of today’s project managers (note the intentional lower case) are all-too-often project controllers. They don’t have the organization’s authority and support to succeed in their projects. The real authority is tightly held by higher-up Middle Managers, some of whom understand little about Project Management. That is one reason why it is difficult for otherwise competent practitioners to demonstrate competence to certification assessors.

The Competitive Advantage of Strategic Project Management

My own experience with this question, Is Project Management Strategic? Is an emphatic yes. Many organizations (private sector or government) understand and demonstrate the ability to span the continuum from Strategic to Tactical. When they do so, they, gain consistent competitive advantage. They also tend to have a higher retention rate for their project talent, including Project Managers and individual contributors. These talented teams prefer to work in strategy-aligned projects that bring recognized results. And, that talent shies away from organizations whose success depends more on heroics than strategic and adaptive management. So the question is not whether Project Management is Strategic: The real question is, are you?