Strategic inquiry

think beyond the triple constraint during all project phases to deliver true business value




—Olusola Olubadejo, PMP, Cakasa, Lagos, Nigeria

Project managers who go beyond the triple constraint to embrace strategic and business management—one side of the PMI Talent Triangle™—are in demand. For job recruiters in the United States, for instance, strategic thinking is the most desired but hardest-to-find skill, according to a 2016 Bloomberg report. And given that only 44 percent of projects are highly aligned to organizational strategy, according to PMI's 2016 Pulse of the Profession® report, there's huge potential for strategic-minded project managers to add value.

“Project management has changed these days, and focusing only on the triple constraint isn't enough,” says Sara Francolini, PMP, project director, strategic planning and execution, Travelers Canada, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “Organizations aren't looking for project practitioners to just execute; they're looking for people who can help support corporate strategy through projects.”

Developing a sharp strategic mindset starts with the right questions. Before asking how to execute the project, strategic project managers should ask why the project is important, says Olusola Olubadejo, PMP, senior project manager, strategic planning manager, Cakasa, Lagos, Nigeria. “You have to really understand why a project is happening and how it ties back to the organization's strategic goals to add value.”

To adopt a strategic mindset from start to finish, ask questions throughout each project management phase that provide the necessary answers—and keep the project moving.

Ask: What's the business case for this project?

Managing a project without fully understanding the motivation behind it is like starting a race without knowing whether the team should be running, biking or swimming. “A project could hit scope, schedule and cost and still not be successful from a business perspective,” says Mr. Olubadejo. Cakasa, an oil and gas engineering design firm, safeguards against such an outcome by having project managers meet with the management team at the project's onset to discuss the business case. Understanding what drives the initiative helps the project manager shape everything from the risk register (and how to prioritize risk mitigation efforts) to resourcing and work breakdown structures, he says.

Get the Answers: Start by asking the project sponsor to walk through the business case and how it ties back to the organization's strategic goals, suggests Ms. Francolini. “Understanding the business case at the beginning is one of the most powerful things you can do for your project,” she says. “If you don't really have a handle on exactly why the organization is doing a project, find out before you start managing it.”

—Sara Francolini, PMP, Travelers Canada, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The portfolio manager or project management office (PMO) is another great resource for understanding how projects drive strategic goals, says Emilio Buzzi, PMP, an IT strategic planning and control leader for food company Arcor SAIC in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “They can act as a bridge between organizational strategy and project management, and help ensure that both are linked together,” he says.



Strategic project managers are made, not born. Three red flags can indicate when thinking isn't properly aligned, says Adeel Azam, manager, strategic planning and integration, Network Rail, London, England.

1 Diving in too quickly: Project managers keen to get going as soon as the project charter is finalized may not be taking the time to really understand why the project is happening. “They may struggle with alignment at a later stage,” Mr. Azam says.

2 A blurry business landscape: Strategy problems await teams that haven't brushed up on economic trends that could impact the project or don't know who the company's biggest competitors are. “Things change fast these days. Technology, economic environment, new legislation—these can drive a major shift in your organization's strategy,” Mr. Azam says. “You have to keep on top of such things to be successful.”

3 A weak link to strategic leaders: A subtle shift in the organization's strategy might not warrant an all-employee email, so being connected to more senior leaders can help project managers keep a finger on the strategic pulse, Mr. Azam says. “You can't just rely on the project sponsor to build your understanding of organizational strategy. Get opinions from other people in the organization, such as business development or people who talk to your customers.”



Ask: How does the business landscape shape this project's success?

Don't stop at “Why?” Also ask: “Why now?” For organizations that survive on client-based projects, economic factors can play into the appeal of attracting new clients in certain industries or geographic areas. But it's up to the project manager to shape a project plan that will deliver on those strategic goals. For instance, the project manager can share the strategy with the team and explain how they can closely monitor client productivity, Mr. Olubadejo says. “A cost controller on the project will deliver weekly updates to the entire team, to continuously track project work against the budget.”


—Olusola Olubadejo, PMP

At product-driven organizations, emerging technologies might be steering the project portfolio. For instance, if a new technology is fueling a spate of projects internally and at competitive organizations, speed to market might be of the utmost priority. Knowing that will help shape the project's resourcing and schedule, as well as the work breakdown structure.

Get the Answers: Subscribe to publications that cover a particular industry to understand how it's evolving and whether external factors might shape your organization's strategy, says Adeel Azam, manager, strategic planning and integration, Network Rail, London, England. Asking a more senior practitioner what his or her go-to resources are for staying abreast of the business news can provide a good starting point for reading suggestions.

“If you can, also get a mentor, so you can get their perspective on issues concerning your area of expertise,” he says.


Ask: Does this project still make sense?

Surprises happen—a new government regulation shifts project requirements, or responding to a realized risk requires a budget increase. That's when it's time for a strategy gut check to ensure the business case supports the necessary changes and that the project is still worth it, Ms. Francolini says.

At Cakasa, Mr. Olubadejo encourages project managers to craft strategic mission statements to guide them through execution and to serve as reminders to maintain a strategic mindset throughout. “Okay, we're two weeks in: Are we still aligned with the strategic organizational plans for this project? If not, could we make amendments?”

Get the Answers: If the project's out of sync with the organization's strategic goals, that should spark a conversation with the project sponsor—even if it seems as if everything's on track with the schedule and budget, says Mr. Azam. Network Rail uses a stage-gate approach to make sure project managers meet with the business sponsors once a month to revisit the original brief and validate the business case, tying each intended benefit back to the organization's strategic objectives. If the sponsor believes, for instance, that a realized risk or change request can't be brought in line with the organization's current strategy, the issue might be brought before a PMO steering committee or an executive group. “Getting strategic insight from senior leadership might help bring the project back in alignment,” Ms. Francolini says. “But if not, they'll appreciate you asking the hard questions earlier rather than later.”

—Sara Francolini, PMP


“[A PMO] can act as a bridge between organizational strategy and project management, and help ensure that both are linked together.”

—Emilio Buzzi, PMP, Arcor SAIC, Buenos Aires, Argentina


Ask: Was this project a strategic success?

Nailing scope, schedule and budget doesn't mean much if the original business case isn't validated. Maintaining a strategic mindset during project closure ensures that the project manager “understood the importance and value of that project and delivered on it,” Mr. Buzzi says. At Cakasa, for instance, project managers question whether project outcomes fulfilled the original business case in alignment with the organization's strategic goals. Any discrepancies are noted and analyzed by a management team to guide future portfolio decisions.

Get the Answers: Analyzing the strategic success of a project is often a conversation best had between the project manager and project sponsor, Mr. Olubadejo says. Doing that critical thinking at the close of one project can have a domino effect on the strategic success of future projects. “If you met the business case, good. But if not, let's find out why. Were there internal factors, like resourcing? Were there external factors, like communication issues with a new client? Then we see how to ensure that next time we'll meet the strategic goals.” PM




Related Content

  • PM Network

    Beyond Tech member content open

    Metric depiction of the evolving roles of the CIOs as digital technologies move to the heart of organizations.

  • PM Network

    Sustaining Strategy member content open

    PM Network asked the project management community: How do you ensure team members think strategically during all project phases--and speak up if they think the business case has weakened?

  • PM Network

    Wanted: Tons of Talent member content open

    The global demand for project talent will surge in the coming decade. Any potential talent gap will be a liability for organizations looking to implement strategic initiatives.

  • PM Network

    Strategic Deficits member content open

    By Ali, Ambreen CIOs know what's needed to deliver value. But those expectations don't jibe with the reality of organizations' strategic capabilities.

  • Putting talent management at the heart of organizational PPM development member content open

    By Cooke-Davies, Terry According to a 2014 report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), talent deficiencies in organizations significantly hamper 40 percent of strategy implementation efforts. The Project Management…