Next Generation project management must-haves

project business savvy and project political savvy

Mary V. Brennan,
Director Project Management Office
American Eagle Federal Credit Union


Formalized project management has existed for decades. Initially, there was considerable emphasis on the “hard skills” of the discipline—schedule development and maintenance in particular. Through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the emphasis shifted to the interpersonal and behavioral aspects of managing projects. Although the technical aspects were still considered important, many came to realize that behaviorally based considerations, such as motivational skills, leadership skills, conflict resolution skills, and other so-called soft skills were a major influencer of project success and failure. Today, hard and soft skill development remains important elements of project management. But while these skills are necessary, they are no longer sufficient.

Rapidly advancing to the forefront within the world of project management today is the realization that projects are key agents in senior managers’ quest to achieve positive business results. And many organizations have also come to realize that—within reason—it doesn't matter how good the schedule is, or how well the people in the project are managed interpersonally, if those aspects of project management are being applied to initiatives that represent ‘poor business.’ Against that backdrop, many senior managers today seek to maintain a much stronger linkage to the project managers and projects that are consuming their valuable and limited resources. Consequently, interaction between project managers and organizational managers is growing.

Together, these issues suggest that project managers who develop project business savvy and project political savvy will be highly valued as the next several years unfold. Those who master these skills are much more likely to advance to the forefront of their organizations.

On the Subject of Project Business Savvy

Organizations pursue projects in order to achieve one (or more) of the following objectives, referred to as high-level business drivers:

  • to fulfill the organization’s strategic intent or strategic mission
  • to optimize the organization’s operations and/or processes
  • to make money
  • to save money

And even though project management is often viewed as a set of tools to manage execution logistics, the reality is that decisions made throughout the life of a project can influence the extent to which that project’s business drivers are satisfied. Individuals who recognize this — and who understand how to make project decisions that will optimize the fulfillment of business drivers — are project business savvy.

The World is Changing

The critical importance of project management “hard” skills and “soft” skills remains widely acknowledged today. However, what is now advancing to the forefront within the discipline of project management is the realization that projects are critical agents in nearly every company’s quest to achieve positive business results. And in that regard, a simple realization is now beginning to sink in for many companies. It is the realization that — to a large extent — it doesn't matter how good the schedule is or how well the people in the project are managed interpersonally, if those things are being applied to poor business ventures. For some companies, this realization is certainly not news; but for many other companies today, this realization represents a potential awakening.

Expectations of Projects Are Changing

As organizations begin to embrace the project as an agent of enhanced business results, their expectations of projects will change. Following are some examples of changing project expectations:

  • The primary emphasis in project selection will shift toward profitability, and away from other factors used to evaluate attractiveness today
  • Technical success for any given project proposal will be assumed (except perhaps Research & Development projects)
  • The business component of project proposals and project status reports will be considerably more comprehensive and thorough
  • Downstream (post-project) impacts will play a much larger role in project selection and justification processes
  • The business impact of projects will be re-examined at project completion, and beyond

These are just a few examples that illustrate how we will continue to observe a fundamental shift in the nature of project expectations, from being technically and behaviorally focused to being business-focused, over the next several years.

Expectations of Project Managers Are Changing

If the expectations of projects are expected to change, it follows that expectations of project managers will change as well. Generally, project managers will be expected to significantly increase their knowledge and understanding of how the world of business relates to the world of projects. Specifically, project managers of the future will be expected to proficiently display these three attributes:

Greater business awareness: possessing the knowledge, understanding and appreciation that project management is a business-based discipline, and not simply a technically based discipline; possessing substantial knowledge and understanding of how their projects relate to their company’s “bottom line”

Greater business acumen: possessing knowledge about when to apply the appropriate business principles, concepts, or tools, why it is necessary, and the benefits to be garnered by doing so.

Greater business competency: possessing “hands-on” knowledge of how to use key business tools and techniques; reducing reliance on the others (such as “the financial group”) in performing certain project-related business functions.

Some other, more specific expectations of future project managers are these:

  • Project managers will be expected to direct projects more like a businessperson and less like a scientist, technician, or efficiency expert
  • Considerations such as impact on profitability, effect on business results, and compatibility with organizational strategy will be a significant factor in molding a project manager’s leadership methods and decision-making approaches
  • Project managers will be expected to demonstrate an entrepreneurial attitude
  • Project managers will be expected to share in the responsibility for the achievement of positive business results

It’s important to note that organizations that hold their project managers responsible for achieving positive business results, they must also commit to assigning project managers much earlier in the overall project life cycle — when most of the critical (and meaningful) business decisions are made.

Project managers who are able to live up to this expectation can expect a number of new avenues of professional growth to become available.

Even the Definition of “Project Success” is Changing

The definition of project success has traditionally revolved around whether the triple constraints of time, cost, and scope were achieved. But while these may be important project objectives and a valid measure of success — they are certainly not the ultimate measure of success in a business sense.

Evaluating how well the triple constraints were satisfied is primarily a measure of how efficiently a given work effort is managed. It is not a direct metric of success in the achievement of desired business results. Satisfying the triple constraints says very little — directly —with regard to whether the project was a wise investment. Did the project make money or lose money? This question cannot be directly answered through the knowledge that we bought the project in on time, at cost, and according to specifications.

It also says little about whether the original business need was satisfied or a given business opportunity was effectively exploited, or whether customers and users’ needs were addressed in a way that will keep them coming back. And it says nothing, for example, about whether the results achieved from a project are likely to open new avenues of product penetration that will benefit the company in the future.

The business-based project management system of the future will call for a new definition of project success. As the perception of project management as a business function increases, “successful” projects will come to be defined more in terms of business impact, and less in terms of logistical excellence.

But…. whose job is it, anyway?

Some still question whether it is the project manager’s job to understand the business aspects of his or her project and to be involved in business-related activities. Those who pose this question point out that engaging in processes and practices relating to the business side of project management, such as business case preparation and portfolio management activities, is not within the typical project manager’s formal job description. For many organizations, this is true—but the number of organizations that think this way is dwindling. The key point, however, is not whether the practice of business-based activities is the job of the project manager: it’s a question of whether you want to be ahead of the curve and advance your career at an accelerated rate!

A Profile of the Business Savvy Project Manager

If projects are viewed as financial investments in support of organizational strategy, it makes sense that the person making project decisions must be knowledgeable in these areas. This is exactly what is giving rise to the, hence, concept of—and the need for—business-savvy project managers. Project managers who have an understanding of things such as their organization’s strategic intent, key market drivers and influences, core product features and applications, and their client’s priorities and needs are properly positioned to make the ‘right’ decisions. Being business savvy also qualifies project managers to support their organization in important activities, such as strategic planning, project financial analysis, project selection, and portfolio management. Allowing project management practitioners to play a role in such activities represents a significant and meaningful form of organizational support. It also provides opportunities for project managers to feel a much greater sense of positive contribution.

To create a high-level view of how you might function as a business-savvy project manager, imagine that you're in charge of a particular project. But instead of leading a technical, deliverable-focused project (which is the way most project managers are conditioned to think today), imagine that you are proposing, starting up, then operating a business venture that requires a significant financial investment. Consider the kinds of things you would need to be concerned about with respect to that business venture. If you stretch your imagination, you will realize that your concerns would extend far beyond what they are today and may include:

  • The profitability of the venture
  • How the venture will be financed
  • Marketing and promoting of the venture’s outputs
  • Operating the venture after startup
  • Legal and ethical considerations
  • The general economy and its effects on the venture
  • The existence and resultant impact of business risks

From the perspective of managing projects from day-to-day, being project business-savvy refers to project managers who understand how and why to incorporate a business perspective into their decision making. They exploit every opportunity to optimize positive strategic, operational, and financial outcomes throughout the entire project investment life cycle.

Why Should You Want to Become Project Business Savvy?

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that project managers who understand the connection between the world of projects and the world of business will be extremely valuable and highly regarded in the future. For some organizations, they may also be capable of actually transforming the project management landscape. Many project management experts now agree that a world full of business-savvy project managers represents the future of the project management profession.

There are two key drivers of this movement. First, more and more companies are coming to realize that projects are financial investments — key agents in the quest for strategic, operational, and economic success — and should be treated as such. And second, more and more people who care about the project management profession (like me!) are seeking ways to elevate its stature and increase the level of respect for project management practitioners everywhere. But no matter what your organization’s position is on the topic of whose job it is, there remains many excellent reasons why you should take the initiative to proactively learn about (and participate in) the business and strategic aspects of the projects you're assigned to manage. Here are just a few:

  • It can be a key enabler of your career advancement. Project managers who demonstrate concern for and understanding of business issues are likely to be viewed in a very favorable way when the time comes to hand out promotions. In today’s competitive environment, being business savvy will be a strong differentiator when comparing competencies.
  • You are likely to become involved in a broad range of interesting activities. Practicing business-based project management may include anything from helping to prepare project business cases to participating in strategic planning sessions (as described above). Many of today’s intelligent, capable, and ambitious project managers would welcome these kinds of opportunities.
  • Your project decision-making capability will improve dramatically. Basing project decisions solely upon technical or functional considerations means that all of the critical inputs required to make the best possible decision are not being considered. Project managers who do not understand the business aspects of their project are destined to make suboptimal decisions from time-to-time.
  • Respect for you — and your role as a project manager — will increase. In addition to giving you an immediate career boost, practicing business-based project management will help us all. It will demonstrate that project managers are able to contribute much, much more than many are being permitted to contribute today.
  • You can make a valuable contribution to our organization’s success. Organizations that do not recognize the critical connect points between their project s and their business are likely to waste considerable money and human resources. Project managers who practice a business-savvy approach can help organizations recognize these connections and reduce the waste.

How Can You Develop and Implement a Project Business-Savvy Approach?

The adoption of a business-savvy approach toward projects is really an organization-wide consideration. Ensuring that practices like project financial analysis and business case preparation become a regular part of doing project business must be driven and supported by senior management. And inviting the project management community to participate on “front end” activities, such as strategic planning, operational planning, and portfolio management is largely at the discretion of senior management. However, as an individual project management practitioner, there are some things that you can do to on your own — right now — to demonstrate your personal business-savvy and advance the cause of business-savvy project management within your organization. Here are just a few:

  • Always confirm that your project is clearly linked to and driven by your organization’s key strategies, business objectives, or operational goals. Make sure your management knows that you are aware of these linkages and that you will integrate them into your project decision making. If the linkages are not made clear to you, don't be afraid to ask what they are.
  • Seek to deeply understand the business benefits that your project yields. For example, does your project: Advance the strategic intent? Increase revenue? Lower operating costs? Increase process efficiency? Use this knowledge to make appropriate, high quality project decisions.
  • Ensure that the person identified as the project sponsor is really the business sponsor. A business sponsor has direct accountability for the successful achievement of the project’s stated business benefits, not just technical success.
  • Establish a solid relationship with your organization’s financial group (or person). This is particularly helpful if they are already regular participants in activities such as project financial analysis; ask them to teach and/or help you understand the project financial analysis process in your organization, if one exists.
  • Ask a senior manager who has impressive business knowledge and acumen to be your mentor. Make them aware that you are trying to cultivate a business-savvy perspective in your management of projects. This is an excellent way to gain significant knowledge, while offering you the opportunity to interact with a member of senior management.

Becoming project business-savvy represents a timely, valuable opportunity for you to distinguish yourself in today’s project management environment. Even if business-oriented skills and competencies are not specifically identified within the formal job description for project manager in your organization, the expectation may still exist, and you would be well-advised to follow business-savvy practices. And even if this expectation doesn't yet exist, project managers who demonstrate the initiative to practice business-based project management are likely to be greatly appreciated and highly valued as they carry their organization into the world of ‘next level project management.’ In short, they will be viewed as superior project managers. You will be one of them if you become project business-savvy.

On the Subject of Project Political Savvy

Project managers need to be able to do more than complete projects on time, scope, and budget in order to set themselves apart from the pack. Improving organizational performance depends upon getting more accomplished through projects. Organizations by their nature are political and the political process is always at work in organizations. To be effective, project managers need to become politically savvy. Since project management is all about getting results, it stands to reason that politics is required.

Stop avoiding it–start embracing it. Recognize that organizations are political and become skilled at politics. The politics we are referring to is the positive side of politics. Yes, there is a negative side of politics and you will need to be skilled there also but only to identify it in other’s actions and maneuver around it. Positive politics fosters healthy, functional, and successful organizations.

  • Competency and trustworthiness are the bases for positive politics. Start off by being a proficient project manager who is trustworthy.
  • Behave professionally and ethically at all times
  • Commit to improving your political skills

Understand the power structure in the company. This does differ from the organizational structure/chart and is the first step to understanding how to get things done. A person’s influence and ability to influence often carries as much or more weight than a formal authority. Look at your organization and observe the interworking and how things get done. Identify the decision makers, the “movers and shakers,” and what makes them fall into those roles. Observe “how they” get things done. What you will see is the characteristics and actions needed to be politically savvy in your organization. Now you need to develop a plan.

Develop a political plan. Project managers are real good at developing project plans, monitoring the progress of those plans, and performing corrective actions to keep the project on track. Project managers perform a stakeholder analysis to map out their stakeholders, identify the level of influence and potential impact for a project but do not map out a political plan for themselves.

  • Develop a political plan and start by identifying the decision makers and decision influencers. Rate the level of influence and impact that they have. Then develop action plans for you to align with those who have medium to high levels.
  • You will most likely have to refer back to the characteristics and actions of those who you already identified as “movers and shakers.”
  • Now as I previously stated, there are those that use ugly/negative politics. These people are to be managed the same way you manage stakeholders that are not in favor of your project — you will be making a big mistake if you ignore or avoid them.
  • Include short and long-term actions in your plan, starting off with what I refer to as low laying fruit helps you gain momentum and see improvement right away. Just like a project plan, monitor the results and make needed adjustments.

Why Should Project Managers be Politically Savvy?

Those who are savvy in organizational politics get things done, get promoted, and gain a higher level of respect from others in the organization. Politics and power go hand in hand. The better you are at politics, the more power you have in your position. People who do not do this don't understand why they are not successful and may even argue that they shouldn't have to spend so much time on politics to get things approved or done. Argue as they may, it’s the way things are.

Political tactics–players and tactics

Savvy politics means expanding networks and building coalitions, having more control in the decision process, and projecting a perception of expertise. Expanding networks and building coalitions is the most productive political tactic. Aligning, collaborating, and networking with influential people in power in your organization will help you attain your objectives. Forcing issues to a head by you is a fast path to trouble. Besides applying tactics, you need to know when they are being applied to you and those around you. You may be a goldfish in a tank of sharks but improving these skills will get you to be a dolphin in a tank of sharks (they can outsmart and outswim a shark, plus they use other dolphins to accomplish things).

What is really important?

Take a hard look at what is really important in your organization and learn to use these things as part of your political toolkit. Does your organization value individual contributions or collaborative efforts? If it’s individual, find ways to shine individually but this is not the trend I have been seeing. Most companies focus on business results, collaboration, efficiencies, quality, cost savings, and teams. Project managers have to manage the triple constraint but have to focus on other areas that have political gain.

  • Collaboration is a big buzz word today. Organizations want employees who can collaborate or improve results.
  • Do the things that gain political favor, such as doing favors for others, participating in volunteer events, organizing internal events, etc.
  • Look beyond the triple constraint and be open to potential improvements, savings, efficiencies, etc. on your projects.

You want me to do what?

Much of politics has to do with perceptions and discussions. Walk around your company one day and listen to the various conversions. Imagine if you didn't know the individuals talking — you may have a different perception of that conversation. Being successful is a combination of performance, image, and exposure. As an example, I walked into the cafeteria the other day and overheard someone asking a project manager how a certain project was going. To my dismay, the first words out of his mouth were that things were not going as hoped on the project. Think about the image he is projecting?

Positive promotion. Be a positive self-promoter. In the scenario of the project manager in the cafeteria, there were about 35 people in the cafeteria who could hear the conversation. If you want others to promote and support you, you need to start by doing it to yourself. Whether it is one person or one hundred learn to promote yourself and your projects. “The project is great……” Those 35 people who know little or nothing about the project now think the “project is great” and may associate that project success with you. Keep issues with the project only with those who need to know them.

Deliver bad news in as positive a way as possible. This is important because if deflects a lot of the negative associated with failure away from you and minimizes the issue. You need to give the facts and not withhold information, but the way you present that information will be critical. Try not to give the doom and gloom report unless it really is all doom and gloom. What people remember is the worst…they don't remember that the worst did not happen; only that it could have. A project manager may think that he or she informed management and in his or her mind is a hero for avoiding the worst case scenario. In the mind of management, it could be that you managed the project that led to the potential issue. Management likes smooth sailing as much as possible, not the calm after the threat of a storm. If possible, give a current state and assure them you will contact them if things progress. If management pushes for more information on the “possible” worst outcome, be prepared to address it AND the percentage of probability that it will occur. Use such tactics to keep the focus on the most probable outcome.

Be cautious with apologies. A few years ago I had a personal coach and one of the best pieces of advice she gave me was to not use the words “I‘m sorry.” These two words are not politically savvy. You hear project managers using these two words a lot, often just being polite or thinking they are being politically correct. When someone says “I‘m sorry” we instantly think they erred and need to apologize. Instead, use the words, “I apologize. These two words leave a different impression on people….and again be cautious of how you word what comes after the apology.

You don't have to be right; you just have to be politically right! There are many daily interactions where project managers are faced with doing things “politically correct.” While many of these times would appear to be common sense, common sense is often nowhere to be found. There are policies and procedures, and then there is the unspoken, unwritten, “politically correct” thing to do. Some people seem to have a natural knack for doing this well, whereas others seem to struggle or feel they should not have to do it. Not doing what is politically correct is political suicide. If you are looking to get promoted or advance your career in any way you have to be politically correct.

Working above the standards. As previously stated, successful is a combination of performance, image, and exposure. This concept is similar to the triple constraint; you need all three to support the structure. We discussed image, so let’s talk about performance. As the saying goes, “You have to do more do get more.” You must be willing to go above and beyond to get noticed, earn respect, and be perceived as highly competent.

  • Your performance review will say a lot of how your manager and others view your performance. Your performance should be at the high end of the scale— period! The score reflects the level of competency that you possess in the eyes of those who matter.
  • Be willing and able to perform work outside of your job description when asked or needed. Nothing will kill your advancement faster than “it’s not in my job description” or “I don't get paid to do that” mentality or behavior.
  • Ensure that the quality of work is above standards and promote, display, and share that work at every opportunity.
  • Be on top of your game. This means being a go-to person, having the answers, and being a step ahead of where you should be.

People Skills and the Importance of Managing Up

Wouldn't it be great if your career success depended solely on your competence? We would be able to go to work, do our work, and then go home. All rewards and promotions would be based on competency and results. The reality is that your competence is only part of the picture. Equally important are the relationships you develop and maintain with key organizational managers — your boss, your project sponsor, client managers and even corporate executives. The amount of attention and respect you get, the projects to which you are assigned, the promotions you receive, and perhaps even your salary can depend directly on how well you manage those relationships. At the core — whether a good manager or a bad one — your boss is there to help you launch your career and be a resource for your personal growth — whether he/she knows it or not. This same goes for all levels of management within your company — they are managed resources for your career advancement that you need to manage.

  • To be effective in managing up, you must be good at what you do, as many of the techniques depend upon you having the respect of your management. That is unlikely if you aren't competent.
  • The success of your relationship(s) with management is your responsibility, and it must be properly managed. The key to your successful relationship with this important person will be the quality of the alliance you build with him or her. When it comes to building that alliance, you're probably on your own. The words of Robert H. Schuller ring loud and clear here: “If it’s to be it’s up to me.” The effort of building such relationships is solely on your shoulders but you will be the one to realize the most benefits from developing these relationships.
  • If your management (at many different levels) doesn't warm up to you — or worse, doesn't even notice or remember that you exist—you'll never land the assignments you need to get ahead. In addition to performing well, you have to make sure the boss knows about all the things you're doing right, while also building personal rapport, so that he or she will keep your best interests in mind (this ties into the “exposure” we touched on).
  • It’s highly unlikely that your management will change. They believe they have risen to a position of authority because their past conduct, behavior, and decision making ability have worked well. So instead of trying to change those who manage you, focus on trying to understand them and their work style.
  • Some think managing up is nothing more than shamelessly ‘sucking up.’ It’s not, it’s being politically savvy. If done correctly, upward management is about humanizing the workplace — developing good person-to-person relationships because you competently pay attention to, support, and help fulfill your management’s mission. And when you do this, it is likely that your management will help you in return.

©2013 Gary R. Heerkens and Mary V. Brennan
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana



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