Share the vision
by Sarah Fister Gale + illustration by Fredrik Brodén
The executive suite gets it. They all walk the walk. They all talk the talk. Sometimes, though, that vision never quite makes it down to the project level. Project managers and their teams should be concentrating on how their projects help the company achieve its strategic business objectives. But try telling that to the project manager frantically trying to meet the next deadline or budget requirement. At that moment, pondering how the team's efforts relate to far-reaching and often hazy strategic plans doesn't take top priority.
The disconnect between project objectives and corporate goals doesn't just stem from short-sighted project managers, says Ron Rosenhead, CEO of Project Agency, a project management training firm in London, England.
The project management office (PMO) or an organization's portfolio managers also share some of the blame for not factoring long-term goals into project expectations. “Project managers and PMO boards are too focused at the project level and aren't asking the right questions,” he says. “In most project reviews, board leaders only ask if projects are meeting their deadlines and budget goals. But they should be asking, ‘Are you still in line with the strategic objectives?', ‘How will this project help us achieve those objectives?' and ‘Should we continue with this project if they don't?’”
Portfolio managers also need to realize project managers aren't trained to engage in long-term strategic thinking, says Donnie MacNicol, director of Team Animation, a project management consultancy in London. “You can't just ask someone to talk or think in a different way,” he says. “Project managers are used to focusing on detail and defined deliverables, not on strategic business goals.”
Adding to the problem is that most corporate strategic goals are too broad, vague or lofty to be of much use, says Charles Woodcock, PMP, president of Demiurgus, a consulting firm in Brandon, Florida, USA. “Saying that you want to be ‘the best provider of product X’ is not a strategic goal,” he points out. “‘Capturing 10 percent of the market share for that product category by 2010’ is a strategic goal.”
For project managers to assess their projects against long-term corporate strategies, goals must be clearly defined, measurable and have a specific time-frame. Once those objectives are identified, PMOs and portfolio managers can more effectively review how and whether each project contributes to the company's aims.
Project managers also need to be given development opportunities through which they can learn to be more intuitive about business goals and how they align with project performance, Mr. MacNicol says. “It requires vision, leadership and communication skills,” he says. “It's not a skill. It's a change in behavior that will enable project managers to think strategically.”
Here's how four organizations have cultivated 20/20 strategic vision across the enterprise.
Green Is It
Sometimes it helps to keep your strategic vision simple. For Melavar, a property development and management firm in Duluth, Georgia, USA, it comes down to one word: green. The company's portfolio currently consists of five projects certified with the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, with eight more in the works.
At no point now does anyone put forth a project that they can't link to the strategic pillars. It's a complete turnaround.
—Tom Edwards, Watson Wyatt, Reigate, England
”‘Green’ is the only way we do business. There is no alternative for us,” says Scott Doksansky, director of portfolio management at the company.
Because of that, every decision—whether it's choosing a brand of paint or buying a multimillion-dollar building—centers around ensuring that decision is good for the environment and good for business.
That focus and how it ties into the company's business objectives are reinforced to employees from day one through training, project planning, goal-setting and reviews.
From executives to receptionists, every employee completes introductory LEED training courses so they understand how the certification works and how it relates to the company's sustainable goals and strategies. “We are a team, and if you don't give your team all of the plays, they won't understand what's going on,” Mr. Doksansky says. “It also creates a thread and a common vocabulary throughout the company.”
The ability to communicate using the same language and knowledge base, along with the fact that everyone on staff understands the importance of adhering to sustainable choices, helps Melavar keep strategic objectives in focus. “Our day-to-day goals and our long-term goals are the same: Take care of our customers, the community and our assets,” he says. “Our people know it's never an option to stray from that philosophy.”
Before anyone can launch a project in the business services division at Watson Wyatt in Reigate, England, they have to get past the PMO board. And that means demonstrating how the initiative will contribute to the company's strategic goals.
Projects and strategy weren't always so very aligned. When Tom Edwards became head of project management for business services four years ago, the group had no coherent project management strategy in place—let alone a way to link projects to the company's vision.
Those deficiencies were becoming apparent. The division had delivered a couple of projects late, over budget and not meeting stakeholders’ expectations. And senior management at the global human capital and financial management consulting firm was losing faith.
Mr. Edwards set out to establish guidelines for project decision-making and align the group's more than 100 annual projects with corporate strategic goals. The first step was setting up a small PMO at the center of the business services organization, with virtual networks of project managers from different functions linked together throughout the organization. This team was tasked with developing a set of project management methodologies, life cycle planning strategies, templates and terminology, along with defining the group's core values, behaviors and competencies.
Once that framework was developed, Mr. Edwards met with leadership to identify eight “strategic pillars” within the organization:
1. Support profitable growth
2. Deliver high-quality advice and services
3. Provide effective information
4. Provide employee development
5. Comply with statutory requirements
6. Offer a stimulating work environment
7. Provide efficient processes and systems
8. Provide quality, project and risk management
Those goals were then linked to the project management decision-making process.
“We use those strategic values to assess individual projects,” he explains.
Project sponsors and project managers are now asked to rate their projects as high, medium or low for their support of organizational strategic goals, then argue their case to the management team. “Project sponsors and managers need to understand why they are doing a project and how it contributes to the business,” Mr. Edwards says. “The rating process helps them do that, without being overwhelming.”
Once all the project proposals for the following year have been collected, they're prioritized based on their ratings. “It's not as simple as turning a handle and the right projects come out,” he says. “It's more about opening a discussion.”
The requirements and business needs have to adapt to the way the local partners and customers do business, although the company direction is the same worldwide.
—Roslind Kaur, PMP, IBM Asia Pacific, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The first year, for example, the IT infrastructure group was surprised to find most of its projects fell to the bottom of the list. “They thought their projects were important, but after some discussion it became clear that very few had an impact on the strategic goals,” Mr. Edwards explains.
Once the list was finalized, the top 25 percent of projects were launched, with additional efforts staggered throughout the year as resources became available. “By the end of the year, we realized there were 19 projects from the original list that had not even been started,” he says. “But that was OK because they were the lowest ranked.”
When projects are completed, they are peer-reviewed by project managers from other units to evaluate outcome and approach versus good practice for project delivery. This reinforces the rating system process and creates accountability among project leaders to deliver what was promised.
The radical change in the way project leaders approach projects was clear by the following year. The IT infrastructure group, for example, put forth a much smaller list of initiatives that ranked much higher on the list. The team also reallocated its resources away from low-priority projects to focus on providing better service delivery, which resulted in higher client-satisfaction ratings.
These days, the entire team talks about projects in terms of strategic results. “It's forcing everyone to think about what the company's goals are,” Mr. Edwards says. “At no point now does anyone put forth a project that they can't link to the strategic pillars. It's a complete turnaround.”
Everyone Weighs In
It seems fairly obvious that project managers and their teams might be more likely to buy into a strategic vision if organizations gave them some say in it. Laurel Eaton is putting that theory to the test.
Ms. Eaton is the program manager for the office of planning, evaluation and learning in the center for planning and development, child support enforcement division of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA. “This year, we involved all of our staff in the development of our five-year plan, because we believe that full participation on the strategic planning and action planning will then relate back to full commitment to the plan,” she says.
You can't just ask someone to talk or think in a different way. Project managers are used to focusing on detail and defined deliverables, not on strategic business goals.
—Donnie MacNicol, Team Animation, London, England
The group made this change to eliminate the notion among employees that strategic planning was not part of their jobs. “If you look at the strategic plan, it really is the day-to-day work we do, it's just documented differently,” Ms. Eaton says. “We needed our people to understand that everyone is responsible for meeting the goals of [that] plan.”
Objectives include improving outcomes for children and action plans for enhancing methods of collecting child support.
After a draft of the plan was developed, the group asked for feedback from staff members who were not part of the planning process. “It helped us to be sure we were on the right track with projected programs and to create buy-in for the plan,” she says, adding that she received more than 50 pages of notes from the review process. “For the most part, the comments showed that we were on the right track,” she says.
“It's the first year we've done this, but we hope it will help us gain accountability and make sure that meeting the strategic goals becomes part of everyone's daily life,” Ms. Eaton says.
The organization also plans to incorporate the strategic plan into project oversight and reporting, and to measure each project's impact on the long-term goals. For example, one outcome in the plan is that children will have increased financial security. A measurable indicator of progress will be a decrease in the number of orders against overdue child support payments as more are made on time. “Every project will have indicators associated with it that tell us we are reaching our goals,” she says.
Ms. Eaton says she's optimistic about the new process and believes early buy-in from the executive team and staff members was critical in making the connection between corporate goals and project progress. “You have to be sure people understand exactly what you are trying to do, and what it means to them and to the organization,” she says. “PMOs should take their strategic plans to everyone, ask them what their problems are and what solutions they can come up with. That's how you build buy-in and ownership of the portfolio management process.”
If you look at the strategic plan, it really is the day-to-day work we do, it's just documented differently. We needed our people to understand that everyone is responsible for meeting the goals of that plan.
—Laurel Eaton, Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA
Achieving Cultural Consensus
Sometimes convincing the team to buy into the company's grand plan requires some cross-cultural finesse.
“The requirements and business needs have to adapt to the way the local partners and customers do business, although the company direction is the same worldwide,” says Roslind Kaur, PMP, systems and technology group enablement program manager at IBM Asia Pacific, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
In Ms. Kaur's case, that means not just securing support from individual team members or even single business units. She has to sell the whole region on the plan.
“Convincing each business unit separately is not sufficient in certain Asian countries because collective decision-making is more important,” Ms. Kaur says. “So even if there is rejection from just one business unit, it is as good as a rejection for the whole region.”
So before she even approves a project, Ms. Kaur conducts a briefing with the business unit owners to ensure the effort is in line with core business interests, including increases in revenue, market share or mindshare. Then, she has a discussion with every region leader to gain their support and feedback, and to iron out any foreseeable issues. “Through this process, we fine-tune the project scope to suit the region's culture in order to achieve the ultimate corporate goals,” Ms. Kaur says.
Securing regional buy-in is occasionally a struggle. “We do have some projects that Asia Pacific feels strongly about, but one region cannot accept it because it doesn't see that it would make any difference to achieving the current business objectives,” she says.
To make her point, Ms. Kaur relies on hard data supporting the project goals along with strong interpersonal and cultural knowledge. “We have to be very understanding and take the time to explain, justify and convince over and over again with the right amount of data to back up our points,” she says. “Patience is also required because discussions can be lengthy and repetitive.”
But Ms. Kaur contends it's worth the effort. “The collective decision is very strong, and once you have it, you can rest assured that the project will go well and all team members will work hard at making it a success,” she says.
In the past, most of the initiatives conducted in the Asia Pacific offices were launched and conducted based on U.S. project models without much consultation with the local leaders.
The habit of automatically accepting projects and programs from the United States changed gradually in her department during late 2006 and early 2007. “We used to follow what corporate in the United States thought was good for this part of the world, but it is very different now,” she says. “The regions must have a say. They must feel included to create buy-in and to provide support to undertake the project.”
Since embracing the collaborative approach, local team leaders see how projects relate to the company's strategic goals—and then actively market the initiatives to their teams. “This is very important,” Ms. Kaur says, “because they have now become part of the decision-making process and feel the sense of responsibility to sell the idea when there are any opposing views.” PM
Sarah Fister Gale is a business journalist based in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
PM NETWORK | DECEMBER 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG