Project Management Institute

Lining up the corporate ducks

by Paul C. Dinsmore, PMP, Contributing Editor

HEY GUYS, there's a lot of extra flapping going on: we need to work on transition when we switch formations.”

Any similarity between a group of flying ducks and a corporation trying to get its act together is more than coincidental. A well-oiled organization is like a flock of wild ducks flying south: both are made up of individuals moving energetically toward a common goal. When wildfowl take off or shift formations in flight, they juggle about for quick transition, aligning themselves to take advantage of the aerodynamics of the V formation. By working together and “drafting” off of each other, they create group synergy that speeds them efficiently to their destination.

Projects within an organization can be equated to ducks in flight. Projects require alignment to make sure company goals are met; transitions have to be quick and smooth to eliminate unneeded flapping and loss of energy.

Corporate Business Planning and Project Management: The Strategic Interface. At the third meeting of the Fortune 500 Project Management Benchmarking Forum, held in San Diego in September 1996, the strategic alignment of projects was one topic that spurred a lively discussion among the participants. And that's no wonder—as representatives of powerhouse companies that are shifting toward management by projects, the Forum participants know firsthand how important projects are to maintaining the competitive edge. According to Frank Toney, PMP, a moving force in PMl's Educational Foundation and a prominent consultant who provides the scientific support for the Forum's surveys and conclusions, “There was a clear consensus that stronger interface is needed between business planning and the strategic management of projects.”

Others at the meeting shared that view. Carl Isenberg, director of project management at EDS, observed that “project management involvement needs to be quicker.” In fact, Isenberg's group, which performs project management for third parties, believes that their participation should begin in the contract sales process.

NCR's Patricia S. Peters agrees. As director of program management for her company's Worldwide Services, she cites NCR's Foundation Statement that “Projects begin with the decision to make a proposal” as an example of the tie between NCR business offices and project offices.


In order for a company's new projects to hit the ground running, with project management methodology already in place, it takes a corporate commitment to incorporating the project management mindset into basic business planning. “Project management disciplines should be integrated with all core competencies in companies,” stated Forum participant Martin O'sullivan, vice president and director of business process management for Motorola. “This includes strategic planning and project concept stages.” Jeff Koroknay, director of program services, IT, at Honeywell, added, “Everything has to be linked to the business strategy.”

lt's one thing to recognize that project management is an important partner to strategic planning, but how do you get a company to actually start doing it?

Getting Your Ducks in a Row. Lining up the corporate ducks means aligning the company's portfolio of projects so that their contribution to the organization's objectives is maximized. This calls for formal interfacing to ensure that project actions move in arrow-like fashion toward corporate targets. It requires more than the old “grenade over the wall” approach, in which the business planning staff identifies and characterizes the project and then tosses it to an uninformed and uninvolved project management group that is supposed to complete the project.

Any primer on modern management says to involve folks, to get “buy in,” to make sure everyone is on board before charging ahead. The concurrent engineering approach to managing projects is based on this theory. Yet the corporate-to-project transition is sometimes overlooked, perhaps because of past fine performance by both the business planning people and the project management group. Normally both of these groups do sterling jobs in their respective areas. Just think what these talents could do if they interfaced effectively at transition time!

Here's a checklist of questions for senior executives and sponsors to help make sure the corporate ducks are aligned:

Is the corporation committed to using project management strategically? In most companies, hundreds of strategically important projects are under way: transformation projects, continuous improvement programs, plant expansions, maintenance fix ups, worker empowerment, re-sizing, outsourcing and quality-of-life projects. Managers, who in the old days supervised people or acted as information brokers between lower and upper corporate levels, now act as project managers, or as managers of project managers. Since the nature of work for managers has changed, a corporate commitment to the art and science of managing projects must be articulated. Things have changed and corporate statements must reflect the changing times. The commitment might address timing (as in the case of NCR) or the use of principles and techniques.

Is there a policy of formally preparing project charters? Since projects are the way corporate strategies are put into effect, it's fundamental that they be done in accordance with the original philosophy, strategy and intent. Project charters are just the instrument for doing this. The charter should (a) have the participation and approval of upper management; (b) answer the basic question, “In what ways will the project enhance overall corporate objectives?” and (c) include such topics as objective, relationships of stakeholders, methodologies, project management philosophy, scope statement, principal interfaces, and a brief project management plan.

Is synergy created between the business group and the project management office? To avoid the grenade-over-the-wall syndrome, early involvement by the project office is required. While this principle seems sound, the practice of it presents a challenge. First, the business planning people may prefer to plan without the help of perceived “outsiders.” Then, there's the small likelihood that the right project people are sitting about waiting to brainstorm and analyze the early stages of a business proposal. Finally, there's the effort required by senior management and sponsors to articulate the interface between the business planning people and the project management office. Will this interface happen by itself? Not likely. Yet it requires only simple interfacing on the part of senior management to ensure that there is a representative from the project implementation group involved during business planning of strategic projects.

How can senior management make sure that projects don't veer away from the chartered objectives Maintenance events, programmed throughout the lives of projects, are a way to keep them aligned with corporate targets. One classic approach is the two-day project management audit. This audit typically compares on-site practice against the project management plan, which is aimed basically at implementation issues. If the audit is expanded to include the project charter, and senior management ensures that it accesses the results, this will ensure that the questions of strategic project alignment are addressed. This event can also be used for strategic adjustment, if some of the original premises have changed as the project has evolved.

FOR THOSE LOOKING for a quantum leap in company performance, or who want to tweak an already effective management machine, keeping an eye to the sky during the change of seasons is a good reminder of a way to boost results. Strategic projects within an organization are like ducks in flight, so there's a direct analogy between the effectiveness of the V formation and the strategic alignment of projects. By working together and “drafting” off of each other, both wild ducks and strategic projects create the synergy that carries the group effectively to its destination.

Note: The Fortune 500 Project Management Benchmarking Forum is an initiative of Ray Powers, PMl Director of Standards and vice president, technology management, Dade International, and Bob Teel, chief project manager, Disneyland. The Project Management Institute Educational Foundation helps support the Forum. ■

Paul C. Dinsmore, PMP, PMI Fellow, is President of Dinsmore Associates, affiliated with Management Consultants International Group with headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is the author of six books, including the AMA H and book of Project Management (Amacom, 1993).

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • February 1997



Related Content

  • Why Great Ideas Fail and How to Make Sure They Don't

    By Vargas, Ricardo Viana | Conforto, Edivandro Carlos | Oumarou, Tahirou Assane To reduce failure rates and successfully deliver strategies in 2020 and beyond, organizations must overcome disruptive forces and flip posing challenges to opportunities and advantages. It all…

  • Pulse of the Profession

    Tomorrow's Teams Today

    By PMI PMI research reveals that it’s the organizations with creative, collaborative and agile teams that will thrive in The Project Economy.

  • PM Network

    All Access

    By Fister Gale, Sarah No more limits. That's the battle cry on everything from construction sites to next-gen digital design as teams look for ways to ensure projects accommodate people with disabilities related to…

  • PM Network

    Vital Signs

    Transforming horizon-focused strategic visions into here-and-now reality can't happen in a vacuum. Instead, project leaders must cultivate a deep understanding of the business, technological,…

  • PM Network

    Power to Change

    By Tayel, Jess Many organizations are undergoing (or will soon undergo) a business transformation program geared toward growth and creating a competitive advantage. When successful, these programs bring about a…