Project Management Institute

Keeping it real



Left on the outside, many project managers have conjured up their own idea of how strategic planning meetings work: Executives huddle around a conference table, plotting projects that will be executed easily, under budget, ahead of schedule and aligned to the organization's vision.

In that scenario, project managers are the killjoys, the ones pointing out details and complexities that challenge that rose-colored glasses view.

Obviously, not every high-level organizational planning discussion must include an on-the-ground project manager. Indeed, too many details offered too early in the process can clutter the conversation—a reality that many project managers acknowledge.

“Project managers are needed to make things happen. They should not be involved in ‘what will we do in the future?’ discussions,” says Pablo Lulinski, PMP, a former IT project portfolio manager at telecom Verizon, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

But when organizations head too far down the project portfolio planning road without considering a project manager's in-the-trenches expertise, they too often end up with a strategy that is more fanciful than feasible. The PMI 2012 PMI Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report: Portfolio Management study found that organizations that frequently have managers focused on achieving strategic goals (and not just departmental goals) see 70 percent of projects achieve expected ROI, compared to 50 percent at organizations where managers aren't as focused.

So what, exactly, do project managers bring to the portfolio-planning table? Not only do they offer the aforementioned healthy dose of reality, but project managers also help executives envision what they want their high-level strategy to actually deliver.


“Higher-level planners bring wonderful, pie-in-the-sky, brilliant thinking to the table about all the wonderful things that can be done. A project manager's tendency is to say, ‘Okay, that's all cool, but let's be practical.’”

—Doug Clarke, PMP, IBM Global Services, Waterloo, Canada


“Higher-level planners bring wonderful, pie-in-the-sky, brilliant thinking to the table about all the wonderful things that can be done,” says Doug Clarke, PMP, project portfolio manager at IT giant IBM Global Services, Waterloo, Canada. “And a project manager's tendency is to say, ‘Okay, that's all cool, but let's be practical. How do we get from point A to point B?’ They maintain focus on what needs to be delivered. You have to have somebody with project management skills in that room, because project managers bring those practical aspects to the process.”


Brainstorming is supposed to be free from constraints. No matter the preferred metaphor—blue sky, blank slate, etc.—the idea is to imagine what's possible without getting too bogged down in day-to-day realities.

“That's where the project manager starts to come back and say, ‘Great discussion, but what are we really trying to do here? Does this meet our objective?’” Mr. Clarke says. “The project manager can come across as a wet blanket in those discussions, but he or she is helping figure out what can be achieved within the budget and scope.”

A secondary benefit of including project managers in strategic discussions is that they absorb some of that big-picture thinking that's part and parcel of such meetings. Then, when it's time to head back to the project, they're better prepared to balance high-level organizational goals with day-to-day duties.


The project management mindset not only applies to the viability of individual projects, but to whether a project makes sense as an organizational priority. “A successful company must continuously examine and determine its critical issues, and then how its opportunities, strengths and skills can be best employed to address these issues,” says Claude H. Maley, managing director of Mit Consultants, St. Julian's, Malta.

Project managers are the ones who can help align big-picture objectives and market dynamics to resources and capabilities.

“Project managers can help with the methodological aspects of strategic planning,” Mr. Lulinski says.


Some organizations may opt to bring in a specialized planning-phase project manager to strategy meetings. Mr. Clarke notes that some companies use “solution managers” to define a project's scope, assumptions and constraints, and high-level estimates of costs and timing. They then hand off the project to the project manager, who oversees execution.

Not every project manager is cut out for high-level strategy work. “It's a different beast from a project manager focused on ground-level execution because you use more communication and negotiation skills,” Mr. Clarke says. “You have to be able to draw out people in discussions, to make sure you're hitting all the salient points, and to clearly articulate for the group what the deliverables are.”

If they can hone those skills, project managers may be getting more strategy meeting invites from the executive suite. PM


Reality Check

Strategy meetings can get mired in hazy business speak. Here are three tips to keep project managers and executives in the real world:

  • Clarity above all. Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to strategy, whether they're responsible for developing it or delivering in line with it. “When communication is not clear or concise or articulated in a way that people can absorb it, you're dead,” says Doug Clarke, IBM Global Services, Waterloo, Canada.
  • Details, details. Once a project takes on tangible form instead of the theoretical scope endemic to planning discussions, it becomes a building block around which other organizational plans can be arranged. Thus, it's useful to identify realistic project parameters and budgets early in the planning process. “Projects need to be assembled and assessed based on how they meet strategic needs,” says Claude H. Maley, Mit Consulting, St. Julian's, Malta.
  • The power trio. Never lose sight of three variables fundamental to any project's success: time, cost and quality. “A project manager is always asking, ‘What are you trying to achieve, when are you trying to achieve it by and how much money do you have to do it?’” says Mr. Clarke. “You absolutely have to keep those three fundamental concepts in mind.”
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