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Strategic Initiatives: What’s Hot & What’s Not?

Hot or Not? Unfortunately, it is not.  Increasingly, people are ‘swiping left’ on project management. Meanwhile, many are falling in love with agile.  But what do these fads and trends, reveal about the challenges of executing on ambitious strategies in a time of accelerating change and complexity? 

‘Swipping Left’ on Projects

‘We have practically banned that word’ said the executive director.  ‘Calling something a ‘project’ is akin to giving it the kiss of death’ he added. Another executive chipped in: ‘When a manager is moved to working on ‘Special Projects’  that is a euphemism for being demoted, sidelined or put out to pasture’. Were these just isolated cases, or are they further evidence that the popularity of ‘projects’ and ‘project management’ has plummeted to an all-time low.

Let’s do a quick word association test. What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘project’ or ‘project management’?  Well, here are some of the common associations:

Bureaucracy
Rigid Slow
Gannt chart  
Confidence (or lack of)
Approvals
Committee
Project Review
Project manager  
Meetings
Too many projects
Stakeholders
Resources (fight for)  

Other words are ‘over budget’, ‘behind time’ and ‘failed’. Words that are notably missing are success or innovation.

For many people, the words ‘projects’ and ‘project’ management have negative associations.  Indeed, rightly or wrongly, project management has gotten a bad reputation within many organizations. 

Throughout this article you will see the words of one of our partner colleagues who ‘goes into the ring’ for projects and project management, arguing that despite its failings and its fallen popularity, it still has an important role to play in ensuring the success of strategic initiatives and critical projects.  This will stand out as they are shown in panels like this one.

So, if the word ‘project’ brings with it so much baggage, you have two choices: drop the word or try to salvage it.  Add a prefix such as ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ or ‘complex’ for example.  Alternatively, use an entirely different word altogether.  Call your project a ‘priority’, ‘initiative’ or ‘program’ instead.

A word of caution: While you may talk of initiatives or priorities, you should still think in terms of ‘projects’. In other words, change the language, but keep the core principles. Specifically, retain the key elements of project rigour such as scope and budget, workplan, timeline and so on. While it sounds like a play on words, there is a real case for managing ‘critical projects’ like ‘strategic initiatives’ and ‘strategic initiatives’ like ‘critical projects’

The Backlash

If you want to understand why PM is no longer trending, then look to its track record. All too often, it is a legacy of failed or struggling projects. 

Project Management continues to get an ‘F’ on its scorecard, with many reports suggesting that as many as 8 out of 10 projects are either behind time, over budget or even worse.  These alarming rates of disappointment and failure has generated a backlash against project management. 

Every failed or floundering project has a real business cost, but there is a personal cost too. Behind each project failure is a tale of personal sacrifice (wasted time and effort), political fallout, or even reputational damage.

Little wonder people are weary of projects.  While being asked to participate on a project was once a mark of distinction, it is now something to dread.

For those leading projects there is a high level of frustration with the process by which project approvals and resource allocation decisions are made. For example:

  • The level of bureaucracy involved and the speed of decision-making.  This is aggravated by the politics involved as projects compete for resources. 
  • The challenge of keeping the spotlight on projects even when the attention of the organization and its leaders had moved elsewhere. 
  • The difficulty of managing stakeholders and changing project goal posts.

Beware.  Simply re-labelling projects won’t tackle the high rates of failure or disappointment.  Strategies, change initiatives, digital transformations and other types of initiatives also have high casualty rates.  The real issue is the ability of an organization to convert its ambitions into reality. 

It could be argued that the reports of project failure are exaggerated, or at least unhelpful.  With too much of the blame for challenges around strategy, change and innovation being placed at the door of project management.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Project management is not just suffering because of too many failed or struggling projects, but too many projects full stop.

In many organizations there is a proliferation of projects, with too many projects competing for scarce organizational resources. That includes one of the scarcest resources of all – the time and attention of senior managers. Hence the often-heard complain: ‘Not another project meeting!’

The goal should be fewer more successful projects.   But this requires a means of prioritizing and sequencing projects based on their importance to the business.  Not all projects can go ahead and certainly not at the same time.

To get a project approved, executives often have to ‘over-egg’ their initiative and what it will achieve.  This can result in a dangerous mis-management of expectations. 

Organizations need to end the ‘project free for all’.  What is needed is a fair and transparent process for the allocation of resources to projects and most importantly for deciding what projects get the go ahead and which ones done.

The issue is not just project management but project portfolio management.   It goes to the very hearth of how organization’s convert their strategies into reality.  Projects are, after all, the building blocks or DNA of a strategy.

What’s in a Name?

One of the reasons why there are so many ‘projects’ is because of the fuzzy language. For example: When is a ‘project’ a real project, and when is it just an idea, a proposal or a workstream? 

Generally, there is no clear definition of what a project is or is not.  So, complaining about project could be complaining about anything.  For example:

  • A manager may say to one of her team: I have ‘a little project for you’ asking him to organize and plan the next team away-day. 
  • A senior executive may talk a lot about an ambitious project aimed at making the organization more customer-centric, yet everybody knows it is just talk.  

The fuzzy language around projects means that many managers struggle to answer questions such as:

  • How many projects are live?  How many are in planning?
  • How many projects are performing?
  • How many are struggling?
  • How many projects need to be retired?

What is the minimum criterion to be met for something to be classified as a ‘project’?  Some argue that a project is, by definition, removed from the everyday work, that is it is special – something that otherwise would not get done. 

Others will argue that something is not a ‘project’ unless there is a project team, as well as a project scope, plan & budget. Moreover, that there needs to be a clear business justification or business case if a project is going to get ‘the green light’. 

Organizations need to define what is and is not a project or initiative.  Related to this they need to agree a common language / methodology for tracking projects. 

Trending Now

Trending now are ‘speed’, ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’.  These fast-changing and turbulent times demand nothing less.

Speed and innovation put traditional project management under pressure. Indeed, for many people there is a growing belief that planning in a time of fast change is futile.

Agile is hot, while project management is not.  In part that is because agile fits with the Zeitgeist of the age and has a natural appeal. It makes sense to people that you cannot just move in straight lines, but must be able to zig-zag too.

By contrast, traditional project management can be seen to run counter to the central tenets of agile.  In particular, the willingness to adapt to changing circumstances and the focus on making real progress rather than rigid adherence to a plan.

Certainly, the role and nature of planning in fast changing times has changed.  The saying that ‘most plans do not survive contact with the enemy’ has never been truer. But that does not mean that you dispense with planning altogether!  While you start off with a plan, you must be able to adapt the plan as circumstances change.  The power is in combining the best of project management with the best of agile. Moreover, with agile reaching the top of the hype-curve, the pendulum may well swing back in project management’s favour.

‘When is the last time somebody got excited about PM?  Well, that is really not the point! Very few people ever got excited about double entry book-keeping, yet the world of business couldn’t function without it. Ok sure PM isn’t sexy, but it serves an important function – at least it should’.

The Make-Over

When many people slam project management, what they are referring to is an out-of-date model of project management – think of it as version 1.0.  That version has performance issues because its features are top down, bureaucratic, waterfall and task-centered. It has the potential to put the brakes on innovation.

Project Management has been undergoing a substantial make-over.  The ‘latest release’ – think Project Management V3.0 – has the power to boost project confidence and ambition because it is: Bottom-up, innovative, iterative and team-centric. It infuses project management with agility.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!  Yes, there is frustration with aspects of project management – the bureaucracy for example – but there is a lot of good things about project management too.  We can get rid of some bureaucracy, while keeping the bits that are needed.  Those bits include having a clear project scope, budget, timeline, etc.

Stuff they don’t teach you on the MBA 

Project Management is one of those things they don’t teach you on the MBA. Why would they?  It is the leader’s job to devise the strategy, executing on projects is somebody else’s responsibility!

Besides, executing on projects lacks the glamour of blue ocean strategies, inflection points, and other hot leadership topics.  That is the whole ‘top-down’ problem associated with traditional project management. 

Could project management actually be one of management’s biggest blind-spots?  The more they turn and run from it, the bigger the challenge it becomes?

The real issue is the widening gap between strategy and execution. The problem is not project management per se, it is converting strategy into success.

People haven’t just lost faith in project management, they have grown cynical of their organization’s ability to translate ambitious plans into reality. The real issue is the widening gap between strategy and execution, or to be more precise between the ambition of strategy and confidence regarding execution.

It is classic transference, executives are projecting onto project management their frustrations with the broader challenges of strategy, innovation and change.  Project management is, of itself, not going to solve the challenges around the execution of Strategic Initiatives, but it does have a role to play. 

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