The requirements of delivering more ambitious projects are turning traditional project management on its head
Managing strategic projects has never been easy and the risk of failure is high. Even if the goals of the project are realized, the odds are stacked against delivering on time and to budget. There are lots of statistics and countless anecdotes to bear this out. As if that wasn’t enough organizations have entered a new era of strategic project delivery, with two key trends adding an additional level of complexity to project success.
Strategic projects are increasingly ambitious – often seeking to shape the future of the organization and even its industry.
Leaders when they set about projects don’t generally aim for half-measures, or second best. Rather the goals are often ‘big, hairy and audacious’ (1).
Delivering on ambitious strategic projects will stretch the organization – demanding new level of creativity and innovation. Generally, that is a good thing as without some degree of stretching the organization is probably not developing those capabilities likely to be required in sustaining its success into the future.
However, as the innovation requirement goes up, so to does the level of risk and uncertainty. If the organization is not ready to embrace this risk and uncertainty project success may be called in to question.
Leaders are projecting their increasingly ambitious vision of the future onto a fast-moving landscape – onto a future seen not through a telescope but a kaleidoscope(4). Where they must trade certainty for curiosity, experimentation and fast learning.
To keep pace with accelerating change, time-frames for delivery have been slashed from years to months.
As the world speeds up, the rate at which projects are set-up and delivered needs to change too. Projects that cannot be delivered upon with speed, risk becoming irrelevant – as they fall behind fast-changing business, stakeholder or market needs.
When it comes to strategic projects, stakeholders seem to ‘want it all and they want it fast!’ Moreover, the window of opportunity afforded by any new trend or technology may be short, with the first-mover advantage going to the fast and nimble.
When you have 24 months to take a new product to market or 16 months to implement a new system, traditional approaches to project management may just get you there in time. But speed things up and there are going to be problems.
But speed of delivery is only part of the challenge, without the ability to maneuver around obstacles speed can be dangerous. Agility is key to keeping the project on track and it is this combination of speed and agility we call Project Velocity.
The combination of increased ambition and greater speed increases risks around execution. It also puts traditional project management under pressure.
By definition, a strategic project is not ‘business as usual’, but rather ‘business unusual’. That means it cannot be delivered ‘in the normal run of business’ or using everyday ways of working.
Strategic projects that are managed in a ‘business as usual’ manner will inevitably struggle when it comes to speed and agility, as well as collaboration and innovation.
The successful execution of today’s strategic projects demands greater collaboration, innovation and agility than ever before. In short it requires a new way of working that is far removed from the normal every day running of the business.
The principles behind this new way of working – this new more collaborative and agile approach to execution – are to be seen in many of today’s most successful organizations.
Our research reveals the techniques and strategies employed by those organisation adopting this new mode of execution in respect of their critical strategic projects. However, to engage executives with the key findings of this research we turn to the race track, rather than the board room. In particular we turn to those most obsessed with performance – the teams from F1 and their inspirational approach to optimizing mid-race performance, called the pitstop.
It is the zenith of performance under pressure, setting new standards in terms of speed and agility, as well as collaboration and innovation. The contrast to the traditional approach to project management or performance couldn’t be greater.
(1) Jim Collins, Good to Great, Harper Business, 2001.
(2) Blue ocean strategy is ‘the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost to open up a new market space and create new demand. It is about creating and capturing uncontested market space, thereby making the competition irrelevant. It is based on the view that market boundaries and industry structure are not a given and can be reconstructed by the actions and beliefs of industry players’. W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne, ‘Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant’ HBR Press, 2005.
(3) An inflection point is ‘a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change’ or more technically ‘something that fundamentally changes the envelope of constraints in the arena within which an established organization operates.” Rita McGrath, Seeing Around Corners, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019
(4) Ronald Cohen, The Second Bounce Of The Ball: Turning Risk Into Opportunity, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2010.
(4) Donald Sull, ‘Upside of Turbulence’, Harper Business, 2009.