Is Project Management Strategic?

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
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). One reason we like this book is its span of the topic, from high-level strategic positioning down to the details of steps and relationships of successful projects. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Are Project Managers Strategic?
That is a different question than the one above. While strategic vision and thinking must occur in the project environment for project performance to be maximized, 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, the Strategic Vision, and drive for change should be managed by a Sponsoring group, who will 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 to some extent on their preferred style, the size of projects, the nature of the projects, whether others in the organization take on the role, the training of the individual, the rewards received for demonstrating needed traits, and 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: Strategic To Tactical
PM practitioners come from different backgrounds. This affects your (or their) inclination for strategic thinking. For example, my own background involved a progression from Assembler language programmer, to higher-level languages, to systems analyst, to business analyst, to project lead, to project manager, to strategic manager, and 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, and then work together to figure out the steps needed along the way 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 is 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. And, when we referred above to the size of the projects in the Are Project Managers Strategic? section above, 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, 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.

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, tended to develop a consistent pattern in the Tactical to Strategic voyage:

  • 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, on the ProjectExperts 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 (ProjectExperts) have performed Portfolio Management consulting with organizations ranging from Government, to Consultancies, to Pharma, to Aerospace, to Information Technology groups within larger organizations. 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 during the 80s, 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 with one of the Blues (Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a collaborating network of health care insurance organizations in the USA), 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 the tactics that the organization’s Project Managers could grasp, execute and deliver. When we asked how this had been done in the past, it turned out that some of the Middle Managers in the organization, who had formerly done much of this synthesis, had moved on to other roles, inside and outside the company.

So we put together a workshop session for a group ranging from top Executives to Middle Managers. The session involved a bit of training, and mostly facilitation. We decomposed the strategies into initiatives along business function lines, broke those into a series of less-than-a-year portfolios of projects, identified the responsibilities for each, traced the interdependencies between them all, established progress and success measures, and 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.

Too Focused on Triple Constraints?
If it is clear to organizations that there must be continuity between their strategic plans and the tactical actions, why is there the perception (recently argued hotly on some social webs) 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, the Golden Triangle, or whatever we call it, than to expand beyond the knowledge areas. Harder to demonstrate the interpersonal skills, the communication effectiveness, the insights about how to work in the organization’s context, and to master the drive for business benefits realization. And, 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 one of the reasons why IPMA-USA established our Advanced Certification series of Performance-competence based assessments of 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, without the organizational authority to succeed in their projects. The real authority is tightly held by higher-up Middle Managers, some of whom are not-necessarily skilled in Project Management. That is one reason why it is more difficult for some otherwise competent practitioners to demonstrate Performance-competence to professional PM certification assessors.

Competitive Advantage of Strategic Project Management
My own experience with this question, Is Project Management Strategic? Is an emphatic yes. Those organizations (private sector or government) that understand and demonstrate the ability to span the continuum from Strategic to Tactical, gain consistent competitive advantage. They also tend to have a higher retention rate for their project talent, including Project Managers and individual contributors, who 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 alignment and agile and adaptive management. So the question is not whether Project Management is Strategic: The real question is, are you?