The theme for this month’s Harvard Business Review is Strategy or, more specifically, strategic execution. In support of this month’s theme, Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes and Charles Sull co-wrote an exceptionally good article, “Why Strategic Execution Unravels and What to do About it?,” that made me stop and think about the tremendous role and impact that project management has on the success (or failure…) of executing organizational strategy. Additionally, the article mentions a couple of visual project management tools that are worth mentioning, which may increase the odds for successful outcomes.
Simplistically speaking, strategic execution is really the sum of two distinct processes: strategy development and strategic implementation. Strategic Development involves analyzing the competitive environment in which the organization operates and then making a series of decisions about how the organization will best position itself to compete in the marketplace. This initial process ends with a series of goals or objectives for the organization to pursue, along with metrics to ensure that progress is being made. Strategic Implementation, on the other hand, involves making decisions regarding how the organization’s resources (i.e., people, processes and systems) will be allocated, aligned, prioritized and mobilized towards achieving the identified goals and objectives. Successful implementation is well planned, communicated, aligned from top-to-bottom, monitored, controlled, managed and effectively rewarded.
For those of us who live and breathe project management, that last sentence should sound awfully familiar. Successful project execution also results from activities that are well planned, communicated, aligned from top-to-bottom, monitored, controlled, managed and rewarded. While not all strategic goals will require formal project management to succeed, nor will all projects necessarily align with strategic intent, the underlying point of the article is that strategic execution greatly benefits from effective and efficient project management approaches and discipline.
What does project management bring to strategic execution?
- Portfolio Management
- Organizes executive-level strategic direction into portfolios of project-based work; each prioritized, sequenced and resourced appropriately
- Governance and Oversight
- Provides a methodology for tracking actual vs. estimated work effort, delivery of anticipated outcomes, budgetary and performance metrics, benefit realization and milestone-based funding gates
- Project Management
- Recognized standard methodology and approach to organizing, planning, monitoring and controlling task-based work designed to deliver a specific outcome
- Resource Management
- Track and report on organizational resources (CapEx, OpEx, Labor) allocated to the strategic plan
- Communications Management
- Information collection, formatting and dissemination from a “single source of truth”
One of the interesting things the HBR article calls out regarding this topic is that, despite all of the planning, methodology and process steps that take place before executing on a strategy via project management, “no Gantt chart survives contact with reality.”1 That’s true! Only within PMP exam questions do projects run perfectly according to plan. Successful execution of project-based work rarely follows the “happy path.” Project managers must be nimble in their ability to adjust course as facts, results and market changes dictate. Additionally, appropriate mitigation plans to known, expected, and even unexpected issues and risks will help to smooth out impacts that change, both good and bad, may bring to the life cycle of the project.
Finally, the article also references a couple of visual tools that help with strategic execution:
- Balanced Scorecard
- Typically a structured report or dashboard leveraging visual design and automated data management tools
- Used by executives and managers to track and manage execution activities aligned to strategic goals
- Focused on only a small, easily manageable number of data points that are typically a mix of financial and non-financial metrics
- Strategic Road Map
- A timeline-based plan that aligns strategic goals, across many time horizons, with specific action plans, projects and/or technologies that will deliver upon the defined goals
- Uniquely powerful, visual-based collaboration and decision support tools that align technology choices to business objectives, govern project selection, and guide project portfolio prioritization discussions
I’d strongly recommend this article, along with the rest of the HBR March 2015 issue, for project and portfolio management professionals. Lots of great professional development “nuggets” in there!
The visual tools referenced in the article, along with over twenty-five other visual project management communication concepts, are explored in greater detail within Visual Project Management, now available to interested readers!
The authors of the article also hit upon a specific point regarding the struggle that organizations have “disinvesting” from strategic initiatives. Changes in strategy can alter project portfolio prioritization decisions or shift resource allocations. Poorly performing projects may have unintended and/or negative ripple effects across other initiatives in the portfolio or overall strategy. When do organizations “cut bait,” eat the sunk costs and move on? This is something that all project management professionals struggle with at some point over the course of their career and will be the topic of a future blog post.