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The First Mile: Is Your Strategic Initiative Set-up for Success?
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The First Mile: Is Your Strategic Initiative Set-up for Success?
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Managing ‘Strategic Initiatives’ Like ‘Critical Projects’

When is a ‘strategic priority’ an ‘initiative’, a ‘project’ or even a ‘program’? Does it even matter?  Well, our research suggests that such semantics may have an influence on strategy. In particular, the language used may influence the manner of execution and thereby the likelihood of success.

Semantics & Strategy

There are lots of different words used to describe the bridge between strategy and execution – most notably ‘priority', ‘initiative', ‘program' and ‘project'.  Which of these words does your organization use?

  • Does your organization use the word ‘priority' or ‘initiative' prefaced by the word ‘strategic'? 
  • Does it use the word project or program, perhaps prefaced by terms such as ‘critical' or ‘key' to highlight strategic importance?

The Central Proposition

Language seems to matter when it comes to how strategy is executed.  When something is called a ‘project' then it tends to be managed more like a project!  Little surprise there!  With ‘initiatives' and ‘priorities' the mode of execution tends to vary more widely – often with less structure and discipline, yet perhaps more leadership and imagination.

The Corollary

The central proposition is this:  Strategic Initiatives should be managed more like projects (and portfolios of projects).  But that is not all! There is a corollary which means that the solution is not to hand projects over to project managers and expect some form of magic.  Nor is the solution to turn up the heat on the project management office. 

Indeed, as we say your Project Management Office won't save you.  While Strategic Initiatives should be managed more like projects, there is a catch:  Critical Projects should be led more like strategic initiatives! They keywords are underlined.

The Full Proposition

The full proposition then is:  Strategic Initiatives should be managed more like projects and critical projects led more like strategic initiatives.  You can interchange the words ‘priority' or ‘program' into this proposition.  Let's explore some practical implications next.

What PM Can Do

Managing strategic initiatives like critical projects typically means more rigour and discipline around how they are managed.  That includes:

  • Setting out a clearer scope
  • Careful planning & budgeting
  • Creating a work plan and timeline, incl. dependencies and milestones
  • A systematic approach to the management of risk
  • Project reviews to ensure visibility and control
  • Ongoing communication with stakeholders.

What PM Cannot Do

Project management while important, is only one part of the solution.  It starts and ends with the strategy and what it is trying to achieve.  There needs to be agile execution and effective leadership too.  These are things not traditionally associated with project management. 

Adding Agility

Project Management brings much needed structure to strategic initiatives.  But, you will need an agile, iterative and innovative approach to execution and reviews too.  In complex fast changing environments, rigid adherence to the project plan could result in delivering against a specification that no longer reflects what is needed.

Adding Leadership

Project management ensures that an initiative is run efficiently, but leadership is key to the effectiveness of an initiative and its impact on the organization.  Specifically:

– A project must be led by a highly capable team that has a clear vision of success to which it is fully committed. 

Rally the right people behind a vision of future success, ensuring effective cross-functional collaboration and engaging, managing and even inspiring stakeholders.

– The team must be able to command the full backing of the senior management and have the power/autonomy required to make things happen. 

Ensuring Success

Project management will provide a work plan and delivery schedule.  Keep in mind however that it is not enough that the project delivers as per the Gantt chart, its set milestones and outputs.  It is possible for a project to deliver against all the outputs specified in the project plan, only to be judged as coming-up short by its key stakeholders. 

It Starts & Ends with Strategy

The longer the life of the project the more likely it is that the needs and priorities of the business and its various stakeholders will have changed since the project plan was agreed.   However, real success is determined by the ability to link project outputs to business outcomes and impact.  This brings us right back to the issue of strategy and what the organization is trying to achieve.

In Summary

To convert strategy to success requires managing initiatives like critical projects but with added agility & leadership. Or to be more precise successful execution of strategy requires the integration of 5 elements:

  • Strategy – distilling strategy into a portfolio of sequenced and prioritized initiatives
  • Project– planning the execution of key initiatives with project management rigour
  • Agility – adopting a more agile and innovative approach that delivers regularly and often
  • Leadership – rally people behind a shared vision of success (incl. stakeholders)
  • Success – ensuring that key project outputs connect to business outcomes and the realization of the strategic vision.



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