Project Management Institute

Strategic Planning in Project Management

Bringing Pie in the Sky Down to Earth

“Strategic planning lays the groundwork for successful project implementation.” Numerous specialists support this concept in articles published in project management literature over the last decade.

Is this strategic view just pie in the sky, or is it something that can really work in increasingly complex project environments?

Prudent project managers, according to authors of the strategic models, initiate activities by issuing documents with names like “project plan”, “strategic project plan”, “project implementation plan” and “program game plan”. By using a top-down strategic approach, projects are to glide home to successful completion.

In this strategic view, plans are organized in a “hierarchy” as shown in Figure l.

A sample strategic model showing the hierarchy of project plans

Figure 1. A sample strategic model showing the hierarchy of project plans.

The “Game Plan” in this model incorporates overall project management philosophy and covers how to deal with the major management issues identified in the PMI Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). These include scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, communications, procurement and risk. The Game Plan is aimed at the major HOW issues of the project management.

The “Project Plan”, which is subordinate to the Game Plan, deals with conventional project planning matters such as work breakdown structure, master scheduling and work methodologies. The Project Plan deals with WHAT needs to be done. “Detailed Plans” go into the “nitty gritty” of project work and include drawing and specification lists, detailed flow charts and procedure manuals.

In this heiarchichal model, the strategic issues are concentrated at the Game Plan level and partially spill over into the Project Plan.


As I have presented this strategic model in international seminars over the years, participants have shown mixed reactions. Some say that the model is helpful for prioritizing the planning process. Others say things like, “That looks good in theory, but in actual practice, things don’t work that way.”

In fact, the problems faced when developing strategic plans and putting them into effect are complex. Here are some of the factors that influence strategy:

  • Type and size of parent and client organization
  • Number and type of projects under way
  • Size of project(s)
  • Nature and complexity of technology
  • Company culture
  • Past experiences
  • Expectations of major stakeholders
  • External factors
  • Economic and financial stability.

Each organization’s reality is unique. Universally applying simplified strategic models to project-related ambients is like trying ‘to put a large square peg into a series of small holes. It won’t work unless the peg is customized to fit the specific hole-or, in the case of strategic planning, the model is adjusted to fit the project.


On the other hand, supporters of strategic planning for projects say that the benefits more than offset the efforts needed to adjust the model to each project situation. Here are some of the dividends:

  • Attention is focused on major questions early in the project.
  • Objectives are more likely to be met because they are clearly fixed, starting at the strategic level.
  • When participative approaches are used, the resulting consensus provides a foundation for smooth sailing during the project implementation phase.
  • The top-down planning process serves as a solid communications channel for the project team and stakeholders.

Strategic planning provides the foundation on which the rest of the project plans are built. It establishes that premisses, managerial policies and general criteria that orient future actions.


Although the benefits of strategic planning are great, the challenge of getting a model to fit given circumstances is also sizeable. Developing a strategic approach for project implementation involves overcoming barriers other than adapting the model to specific circumstances. Behavioral patterns, inherent to company culture, can muddy the managerial waters. Here are some common hurdles:

  • The fuzziness of things: Because strategic concepts are vague (as opposed to the concrete activities identified in project schedules), there is a tendency to want to “get down to brass tacks” and skip over the strategic thinking phase.
  • Resistance to change: If strategic project planning is new to the parties involved, resistance appears. pressure to “get the show on the road” causes strategic thinking to get pushed aside in favor of shortterm tasks.
    Existing standards and norms: Most companies have procedures that cover some aspects of managing projects. Those companies that frequently manage projects have numerous documents that establish in detail how some things should be done.
  • Stakeholders’ prior practice: Jointventure partners, financial agents, clients, final users and other project stakeholders may have prior practice inconsistent with the strategic approach under proposal.
  • Lack of involvement: Excessive emphasis may be given to the strategic plan itself, as opposed to the process of planning. Lack of involvement in the plan may result in low commitment by the key parties.

A COMPARATIVE CHECKLIST (What you’ve got vs. what you need)

The missing link in the strategic planning process for projects is sizing up what already exists with what is actually needed. In simple terms, this means” comparing what you’ve got with what you need.

One way to approach this situation is by “checklisting”. This is done by making a list of strategic questions pertinent to your project and comparing what you’ve got (present practice) to what you need (perceived strategic needs).

The checklist can be an intuitive, “made-from-scratch” listing of relevant issues or can be drawn from a formal model. Here’s a sample checklist based on the PMBOK headings. For each item, existing strategies, policies and practices need to be described and compared with the real strategic needs. (The detailed PMBOK can be used as a reference.)



1. Scope

2. Time

3. Cost

4. Quality

5. Human Resources

6. Communications

7. Procurement

8. Risk

Specific questions can also be a part of the checklist. For instance:

  • How will the project team relate to upper management?
  • What systems will be used?
  • What type of project organization will be used?
  • What support is needed from other areas and how will it be attained?
  • How will interfacing with the client or final user be done?
  • How will upper management control be exercised?
  • What new factors will affect this project?
  • How does the project relate to other projects under way?

Once these questions are answered and the gaps are identified between existing policies, real needs and the theoretical requirements, the strategic planning process can be developed.


Applying simplified strategic models to projects in complex settings is pie in the sky. Strategic planning that fully takes into account the corporate and environmental surroundings is a complex and challenging task. Prior to launching a full-scale strategic planning effort, a comparative checklist is needed to size up traditional, existing strategies with real strategic needs.

Strategic planning in projects requires adapting theoretical models to actual practice. This involves 1) selecting the theoretical model that best meets your requirements, 2) knowing what you already have in terms of strategic planning instruments and 3) making the necessary adaptations.


Paul C Dinsmore is President of Dinsmore Associates and Director of Management Consultants International with offices at Rua da Lapa 180, Rio de Janerio, Brazil (FAX 5521232 4932). He has authored five books including Human Factors in Project Management.

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.

February 1990



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