The Strategic Role of a Project Manager

Not long ago Project Management was about managing the triangle of time, cost and quality. Cash was abundant and projects were big and bold. But that was then. Economic conditions have remarkably changed and therefore companies are changing too. In these tight times, where every cent counts and every cent is counted, the focus has shifted to value creation. Therefore, Project Managers have to become more strategic.

You don’t have to be a genius to understand that business has changed over the last years. As a result organizations are relying more heavily on projects to deliver their strategic efforts. In the past a project that was on time and on budget was considered a success. Today, it is more important than ever for Project Managers to understand how to connect the company’s strategy to projects. Project management and organizational strategy should become natural partners.

Project Managers should look at it as a huge opportunity to act more strategically and add value to their roles. They should play a strong role in executing organizational strategy. Many organizations have just begun to incorporate Project Management into their strategic delivery, but unfortunately, many Project Managers still don’t see how their work aligns with strategic goals.

I will share with you some interesting insights that will help you to become a more strategic oriented Project Manager, but before doing that it’s important to stop and reflect on what is truly meant by ‘strategy’.

Strategy! Strategy?
According to Harvard Professor Michael Porter, it is important to have a good sense of what the company’s strategy is. And so, it is important for Project Managers to have the necessary insights and disciplines to understand the company's strategy and connect it with what they do. Despite the fact that ‘strategy’ is a well-established discipline today; it’s relatively still misunderstood in a lot of organization. The word is most of the time miss-used.

A typical way of thinking about competition and strategy is the idea of being the best company in a sector or business. It’s an instinctive reaction to think if we are the best we will win over our competitors. Unfortunately this is the most disastrous way of thinking of it, because there’s simply no best. Try to answer the following question: What’s the best car? There are a lot of good cars. It all depends on who it is meant to serve. It all depends on the needs and customers you are trying to reach. The idea that there is only one way to compete in any business is simply not true. There are many different ways to compete and deliver value for the customer you choose to serve. Your goal is to figure out how you’re going to do it better, and uniquely well. It’s about delivering a unique value to the customers that you are trying to serve. Strategy is about competing to be unique.

Another important thought to share is that every person in a company has to understand the company’s strategy in the same way. There are three common mistakes in thinking about strategy:

  • Strategy is often confused with goal. Becoming number 1 in a specific business for example is a goal, an aspiration. The strategy is about answering the question ‘how do you want to achieve this’. It is about the set of choices you’ll make which will produce that unique and competitive advantage.
  • Strategy is about the many action steps to reach that competitive advantage. The action steps itself are not the strategy, but they are embedded in the strategy.
  • Strategy is a lot more than just a mission statement. It is very specific and it’s about a set of choices on how you want to compete with the business. It’s about the whole thing not just about some parts. It’s about the position and not about the action steps. It’s about uniqueness.

But the next question that arises, is ‘How do you align your strategy with Project Management and why?’

Linking Strategy with Project Management
It is important to understand that every project is embedded in a strategy. Which means that if we don’t understand a company’s strategy, we cannot decide which projects should be executed and which shouldn’t. Strategy needs therefore to be clear at all parts of the organization to make decisions that are aligned and speak the same language.

Project Management is now a core discipline of management. It is the preeminent method for making things happen and implementing change in the world.
Michael Porter

Projects, programs and portfolios are central for change in the world today. They drive the development of new products and services, infrastructure, etc. The Project Manager of tomorrow will be judged by his ability to deliver a product or service that aligns with the company’s strategy to deliver benefits.

The big challenge companies are facing today is the ability to translate strategy into well-defined actions (projects and programs that need to be implemented). Achieving this requires competent people and the application of processes and the right tools. As said before, this is a huge opportunity for Project Managers to add value to their roles (start learning new things or apply for that training!). On the other hand, companies need to foster the skills and attitudes of their people that are required to make this move. Organization need to recognize project management as a driving force on organizational and individual level.

Project management is not always perceived as a functional strategy or a business process. This makes aligning project management to a company’s strategy in some cases difficult. But if you do align both elements you should be able to make better portfolio decisions. And on a lower level the focus of a project team is then shifted from conversations about project success to promoting the company’s goal.

This means that traditional project management skills need to be augmented.  A Project Manager must become more strategic. Here are a few tips that you may find helpful:

  • Start acting as a strategic planner and always ask yourself ‘Why is this project important?’ or ‘Why isn’t this important?’. Doing so you can take control of poorly aligned projects.
  • Stop thinking about just your individual project and start to think about how your project plays in the overall strategy. Pay attention to the business environment that surrounds your company and your project. Only then you can start thinking about how the project is working or not working with the organization’s strategy.

In a fast-changing business enviroment we are required to think, plan, and act in a new way. Traditional project management skills are necessary, but not sufficient anymore. So, how is your role becoming more strategic, and how do you drive strategic thinking in your projects? Feel free to share your thoughts with us!

 

 

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