Some organizations enjoy a higher batting average when it comes to the success of critical projects and initiatives. As a result they are able to more confidently realize the ambitions of their strategies for digital transformation, organizational change, accelerated growth and so on.
Research points to 6 specific practices that successful organizations adopt in respect of project and program management. Combined these represent key pages in the C-suite playbook for narrowing the gap between strategy and execution.
6 Winning Practices
When you look at those organizations that successfully narrow the gap between strategy and execution, some clear patterns emerge with respect to how they manage projects and programs. In particular, they attend to 6 key areas.
If you want to know if your organization is playing ‘at the top of its game’ when it comes to executing on its strategy, then look to see its adoption of the above practices and behaviors. These 6 factors are the tell-tale signs of effective project, program and portfolio management.
Use the list to explore how many of these factors are exhibited within your organization. This could go a long way to explaining its level of project and program success. More importantly, it can illuminate specific ways in which managing critical projects and programs can narrow the strategy-execution gap.
Let’s explore each of the 6 factors in turn.
1. Project Visibility
Obviously, management without visibility is difficult. It is important that managers have sufficient visibility of the program or portfolio and how it is performing. Can senior executives answer questions such as:
- How many projects or initiatives are there?
- How many are performing?
- How many are struggling?
Greater visibility, in and of itself, can go a long way to tackling any gap between confidence and ambition in respect of the organization’s critical projects and initiatives, as well as to rebuild confidence in execution more generally.
2. Project Rigor
Despite growing disillusionment with traditional project management and the desire for a more agile approach, the fundamentals of planning must still be applied to the execution of strategic initiatives. That includes:
- Clear project scope, timeline & budget
- The need for absolute clarity regarding results
- A full understanding of business and stakeholder needs
- The management of risk
- Regular project reviews
There is a growing recognition that all plans are based on incomplete knowledge and hinge on assumptions, but they are still necessary. Yes, the plan can and will change, but there must be a plan.
How an organization manages the first and the last mile of its projects, programs and initiatives. The first mile is particularly important for complex ambitious projects and includes establishing the business need and building the business case, as well as external/market validation.
3. Project Reviews
Sitting in on a project review can be one of the most revealing aspects of project, program and portfolio management.
- What is the average length of time between reviews?
- How many projects have been reviewed (e.g. last 6-8 weeks)?
- How effective are project reviews?
- What is the level of energy and engagement evident during the review?
- During reviews is it safe to talk about obstacles and setbacks?
- Are divergent perspectives welcomed at project reviews?
Explore the difference between a traditional project review and an agile project adjustment here.
4. Struggling Projects
How an organization handles struggling projects, can reveal more than all of its successes. For example:
- What happens when a project is floundering? Is it left to struggle or is action taken fast?
- Are projects that cannot succeed or no longer make sense retired?
- When this happens are resources re-allocated to more deserving areas and do people move on to the next project or role without any shame?
Too many organizations are unnecessarily bound by legacy commitments. They are reluctant to ‘draw the curtains’ on projects or initiatives that no longer reflect the priorities of the business, or its strategic focus.
Naturally, when the organization or a leader has invested heavily in a project (not just in time or resources, but in reputation) there can be a reluctance to write off that investment. However, being able to retire projects (without shame or recrimination) is key to being able to dynamically align resources with strategy. Resources from retired projects can then be re-invested in other more deserving initiatives.
How to prevent projects crashing-out & minimize the damage when then do? Explore our findings in this area here.
5. Resource Allocation
The strategy sets out goals and aspirations. But it is not until resources are allocated between projects that the organization’s commitments are made explicit.
Within any organization there are lots of projects and priorities competing for limited resources and even more limited attention. From within this ‘portfolio’, projects must be prioritized and sequenced. Similarly, a major program or initiative may consist of many individual projects, sub-projects and work streams.
Not all projects or sub-projects can or should proceed and certainly not at the same time. Yet there is a proliferation of projects within many organizations. The result is a dissipation of resources, a lack of focus and a misalignment of people, as well as strategy.
A robust and transparent process for the allocation of resources to projects is essential. While politics and other forms of bias will always creep into human decision-making, the basis upon which project decisions are made must be driven by business logic, with the business case justification being paramount.
Getting the balance between rigorous project evaluation and enabling speed and agility isn’t easy. Indeed, nowhere are the organization’s bureaucratic leanings more evident than in the allocation of resources. This can result in the organization’s CEO paradoxically calling for greater speed, agility and innovation, while projects and proposals are subject to layers of bureaucracy, reams of documentation, cumbersome approvals processes and conservative committees.
- One of the easiest ways to hamstring a cross-functional initiative or team is to put it at the mercy of departmental budgets and bureaucratic approvals processes. For example,
- Which department’s budget is this going to come from?
- What type of internal transfer pricing arrangements will be in place for access to centralized services?
- What happens if an opportunity or challenge emerges mid-way through the multi-annual strategy cycle or even the annual budgeting cycle? Will, the project team be able to take action or must it wait for the planning cycle to align?
- What happens if the budget needs to be allocated differently to what was set out in the original project plan? Will the project leader have to retrace the steps of the project approvals process, re-writing the project plan, presenting before committee, courting the approval of key executives and waiting for a decision?
- When a project cannot succeed, or no longer makes sense, how quickly will the organization take action to retire the project and reallocate resources elsewhere?
In many ways, the PMO faces the same challenges as a Venture Capitalist in its decisions about project funding. That includes:
- The need for a diversity of internal and external perspectives in the decision-making process and the role of market validation
- The process of engaging with risk and uncertainty
- The importance of a balanced portfolio that includes projects that span multiple time horizons and business as usual, as well as business unusual initiatives.
There is one exception to the primacy of the business case. A near term focus on financial returns may eliminate many worthwhile but more speculative projects that rely on forecast assumptions and hypotheses regarding the performance of new products, markets or channels. However, such speculative projects may represent an important element of a balanced portfolio.
A business is often devoid of hearth and soul, yet the passion and vision that drive projects is an important element of success. Where the numbers add up, these are often the deciding factor.
The allocation of resources between projects isn’t a project decision, but rather a strategic one. The business fundamentals are key – this embraces a total of 9 factors modelled in what we call the ‘Project Chassis’,
This ‘chassis’ analysis in no way takes from the importance of the business case, but turns attention to the strategic conversation that is required.
6. C-suite Engagement
Critical projects and initiatives represent an important strategic investment by the organization. They tie up millions of dollars and thousands of man hours. Yet, many C-suite executives don’t have sufficient visibility of what is happening in respect of the products or initiatives upon which the realization of their corporate vision or strategy depends.
It is essential that those leaders who devise the strategy take an active interest in the performance of the key initiatives and programs that will bring their strategy to life. Afterall, while leaders can delegate responsibility for execution, they are ultimately accountable for results.
Which of these 6 practices could impact on your success?
A note of caution: There are two contrasting views in respect of the role of project management in the execution of critical projects and strategic initiatives. The first is that ‘project management is everything’. The second is that ‘project management is nothing’. The truth is likely somewhere in between. The essentials of project, program and portfolio management are as important as ever. Yet, expecting your project management office to save you (or your projects) would be unrealistic. This is just one part of the total solution to the challenges of executing on increasingly ambitious strategies in an ever more complex and fast-changing world. Also required are strategy, leadership, agility and more (as illustrated in the ‘Priority Track’).