The key to success as a project manager

become "strategically involved"

IAPPM Fellow, AAPM Fellow

President, Management Solutions Group, Inc.


Let’s be clear—much of this paper is not based upon formal surveys or systematic research. It is based upon the author’s personal observations over a period of several years of professional service to the discipline of project management. Please bear this in mind as you read on.

An overwhelming majority of the project managers I encounter today are under utilized. They are assigned to implement solutions that they played little or no part in developing. They are handed project completion dates and budgets that they played little or no part in establishing. They are expected to willingly accept orders to accomplish a project that—from their perspective—has the appearance of falling from the sky. In many cases, sufficient background information on how and why the projects they’ve been assigned to managing came into being is not provided voluntarily. In the worst cases, the mission’s targets lie somewhere between infeasible and impossible.

The reality is that there are a wide variety of activities that lead up to the eventual existence of a project. But, in many cases, the project management community is not invited to participate in these activities. This represents an opportunity lost—for companies, for project managers, and for many of the projects involved.

This paper presents a model for overall project life cycle that incorporates a “strategic front end.” Recognizing the existence of strategically oriented activities prior to the identification and launch of projects is not a new concept. However, identifying these activities as potential areas of involvement, and professional development for project managers is somewhat novel for some firms. And, sadly, suggesting that involvement in these activities will improve project outcomes is equally novel. The paper identifies a number of specific pre-project activities, the knowledge and skills required (of project managers) to be effective participants in these activities, and how this kind of involvement can contribute to increasing successful project outcomes, help develop better project managers, and improve the professionalism of project management.

Introducing the STO© Model for the Overall Project Life Cycle

Defining the Overall Project Life Cycle

Within the world of classic project management, the term “project” or “project life cycle” typically conjures up the notion of a defined effort. This effort is normally a solution of some kind—a response to a problem, need, or opportunity within an organization, and often marks the point in time when a project manager is assigned to lead that response. The project begins with a number of activities that formally launch the effort (often referred to as project initiation), followed by planning activities (often called project planning). After the project has been planned, the project team begins taking on the accomplishment of identified tasks (often called project execution). Eventually, it is time for the key project deliverables to be handed off to a client, customer, or user group, and to bring the effort to an organized end point (often called project closure). In many organizations today, this life cycle represents the limits of involvement of the project manager and the project management community.

The reality is that there typically exists a period of time—and a number of activities— that precedes the project life cycle described above. These could be characterized as pre-project activities. Similarly, there is “life after projects.” There typically exists a period of time and a different set of activities— that occur after the project closure phase mentioned above. These could be characterized as post-project activities. Together, these three periods of time and these three sets of activities form the overall project life cycle.

About the STO© Model for the Overall Project Life Cycle

The STO© Model for Overall Project Life Cycle represents a different way of looking at projects, and is intended to expand the classic view of projects. The acronym “STO” stands for Strategic, Tactical, and Operational. These terms are meant to characterize the three sets of activities outlined above and illustrated in Exhibit 1 below.

The pre-project activities mentioned above are somewhat strategic in nature, as they often form the foundation of the core project effort and define why a project is needed. These activities address the business drivers, offer reasons for pursuing a project effort, confirm economic justification, and ensure that a given project effort is aligned with the organization’s strategic intent.

The STO<sup>©</sup> Model for the Overall Project Life Cycle

Exhibit 1: The STO© Model for the Overall Project Life Cycle

The actual project effort is, in essence, tactical in nature. As defined in nearly any dictionary, tactics incorporate plans and procedures for promoting a desired end result—an excellent characterization of the classic interpretation of a project.

Post-project activities collectively refer to actions taken after the core project effort has been completed, and the project deliverables of that project are being utilized or otherwise being pressed into service. For most firms, this is an operational consideration.

In this paper, we will focus exclusively on the “strategic front end” on projects (pre-project activities).

Strategic Activities that the Project Management Community Could (or Should?) Be Involved In

Note that the heading refers to “the project management community.” This is meant to convey the notion that it is not necessary that project managers be involved in certain strategic activities described below. It is necessary that the discipline of project management be represented, though. This representation could be accomplished through project management office (PMO) directors, knowledgeable project management practitioners on rotational assignment, or similar approaches.

Strategic Planning and Project Objectives Development

The primary purpose of strategic planning should be to identify strategic and operational problems, needs, and opportunities. But too many of today’s firms today take their strategic planning process too far and use strategic planning sessions to also identify project solutions. This is often done without sufficient alternatives analysis.

When the project management community is represented in strategic planning, sessions may result in a few positive influences:

  • Project management methods can be applied in a way that will keep strategic planners focused on ensuring that the problem, need, or opportunity is thoroughly understood, rather than prematurely jumping to a solution
  • If strategic planners remain insistent upon trying to identify solutions, project management expertise can assist in advising strategic planners on several things, such as:
    1. the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions (from an implementation perspective)
    2. reasonable time frames for project implementation
    3. reasonable funding levels for project implementation
    4. resource requirements and potential resourcing issues
    5. appropriate technologies
    6. available technologies

Operational Planning

Some firms conduct operational planning sessions. These sessions are quite similar to strategic planning sessions, except that they focus on optimizing day-to-day operations, company infrastructure, and continuous process improvement initiatives. The goals of the project management community as a participant in these sessions is the same as described above.

Project Financial Analysis

Firms that are in the for-profit sector should routinely conduct a financial analysis of their projects. The purpose of the analysis is to ensure that each project is “financially justified”—that the cash inflows of the project exceed the cash outflows. Not-for-profit entities that pursue projects on the basis of objectives, such as efficiency improvement and effective utilization of resources, should also conduct the same type of analysis.

Some of the inputs to any project financial analysis will come directly from estimates related to the project effort. The most obvious inputs, of course, would be project cost and project delivery schedule. Achieving reasonable projections for these values requires knowledge of execution strategies as well as sound estimating methods. So even for companies that conduct financial analyses (which is admirable), many may be basing their approval decisions on imperfect, incorrect, and misleading information if they fail to consult knowledgeable project management practitioners. Inviting the project manager to participate in the financial analysis process would be well advised.

Business Case Preparation

A project business case is a start-up document used by senior management to assess the advisability of a specific proposed project, as the basis for comparison of a number of projects competing for limited funds, or to assess the options around alternative solutions to a business need. If approved, it confirms senior management support and/or resourcing for a recommended course of action or alternative.

Project business cases incorporate a wide array of information on the problem, need, or opportunity as well as the proposed solution. The proposed solution is what eventually becomes the project. Business case preparation is among the most obvious candidates for including the participation of project management expertise. In a perfect world, that expertise would come in the form of an early-assigned project manager. And, yet many companies who routinely utilize a business case process fail to involve any representatives of the project management discipline in that process.

Solution Alternatives Analysis

When a problem, need, or opportunity surfaces within an organization, it is good practice to conduct an analysis of the solution options. Criteria should be developed that enable the organization to evaluate several options, and then select the alternative that is deemed to be “the best.” Many years ago, this step was called project investigation and was considered a routine step in the project process. But many senior managers and executives today have moved in the direction, whereby they simply identify a solution, then hand that solution to a project manager. This has created an environment in which alternatives analysis—more by custom than by good sense—is now viewed as being an activity within the strategic front ends of projects. It is viewed as an executive decision instead of a carefully crafted analytical outcome.

The process of project investigation, in principle, should be included in the business case development process described above. Whether it is or is not part of business case preparation, project investigation is among the most obvious examples of the value to be gained by involving project management expertise.

Portfolio Management

Project portfolio management is a key management process that is intended to support organizations in collecting, viewing, reviewing, and analyzing information about all of its projects. It includes the sorting (by portfolio) and prioritizing of projects (within portfolio categories) according to meaningful criteria such as financial return, strategic value, resource utilization, cost expenditure, and others. It also includes the understanding of project-to-project interactions and dependencies.

The project management community can add considerable value to the portfolio management process by:

  • Assisting in proper definition of individual project efforts
  • Providing critical insights on project interactions and/or sequencing considerations
  • Providing useful information on resources interactions, dependencies, and potential shortfalls

The Benefits of “Strategic” Participation

For the Project Manager

Many project managers I meet today feel under utilized and generally unfulfilled. They do not feel challenged and they do not feel as if they have been allowed to contribute as much as they could. They recognize that the discipline of project management is being marginalized. They note that many organizational managers today seem to interpret the extent of their mission as project manager as being limited to developing a Gantt chart and herding a team of people in the direction of an unrealistic set of project targets that they had no hand in establishing.

From the perspective of project managers, involvement in the strategic front end of the overall project life cycle offers a wide array of benefits related to their professional development and job satisfaction. Among these benefits are these:

  • Gain useful insights into “strategic thinking” and other management processes
  • Develop a closer personal association with those who control their career advancement
  • To feel as if they are contributing in a more meaningful way
  • Being involved in a broader range of activities, which are likely to be more interesting

For the Project Manager’s Company and Its Projects

There are much published data on the subject of “failed projects.” In some cases, there is an obvious question to be asked: failed according to whose standards? At times, this is a difficult question to answer with certainty. What is not difficult to state is this: in an environment where project managers are handed a project solution that was not a product of thoughtful analysis with cost and schedule targets that were fabricated rather than carefully estimated, there will be wasted resources, wasted money, and wasted opportunity in the forms of other, more deserving project initiatives left undone. At least a portion of this waste represents the benefit to be gained by including the project management community in the strategic front end of projects.

Skill-Building to Prepare for “Strategic Participation”

Preparing to become strategically involved may require some amount of skill-building preparation. Many of the competencies required to be an effective contributor to the strategic front end of projects are likely to be new and different for many project management practitioners. A number of these competencies are identified in Exhibit 2, as Knowledge, Skill, and Aptitude (KSA) requirements.

KSA Requirements to Prepare for Strategic Involvement in Projects

Exhibit 2: KSA Requirements to Prepare for Strategic Involvement in Projects

It’s important to note that there should be no expectation that the project management practitioner needs to be fully proficient in every one of the KSA pinpoints. These are suggested growth opportunities and each individual needs to appreciate the needs of his or her specific company and organization. It’s also important to note that the process acquiring these KSA elements will take time.

It’s also worth noting that KSA development alone may not be sufficient to become a participant in the strategic front end of projects. Although some companies are likely to embrace the concept of project management involvement in the strategic front end of projects, others will not. Sadly, many companies today are resolute in their limitations around project management involvement. They believe that the only place for project managers is in the tactical phase (as described in the STO© Model above). The challenge, of course, is to convince them that the discipline of project management can add value beyond those bounds.

In Closing…

If you are a project manager—or any type of project management practitioner, there are likely to be many benefits associated with becoming more involved in some of the activities that make up the “strategic front end” of the overall project life cycle. You are likely to find many of these activities more interesting and fulfilling. You are likely to experience more rapid professional growth and increased job satisfaction. And, you are likely to elevate the respect and appreciation of the project management profession.

The recommendation to become strategically involved, however, comes with a piece of advice on getting there: don't wait to be asked. Invite yourself in!

© 2011, Gary R. Heerkens
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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