From tactical project management to strategic project leadership


Management Concepts


Organizations are implementing “management by projects” and moving to more strategic project management. Tactical project managers that work “in” the project are still needed. But so are project leaders that work “on” the project. To make this transition requires discipline on a number of fronts, including asking strategic questions and stepping back to obtain a strategic perspective. This paper will address the transitions that have occurred and that are still to come in moving from tactical project management to strategic project leadership. It will also discuss the skills that are needed by the strategic project leader.


Organizations continue to embrace “management by projects” rather than “management by objectives.” This move has caused today's project manager to develop greater awareness of the organization's vision and mission, and not merely to deliver a specific result. Consequently, strategic project management has been added to tactical project management.

To move from a tactical to a strategic perspective, leaders need to be able to step back to work “on” the various systems elements of the workplace and project. This does not mean leaders don't also need to work “in” the system, but that part of being strategic involves being able to work “on” things.

To take this step back requires discipline on a number of fronts, including asking strategic questions, stepping back to gain a strategic perspective, maintaining the discipline of thinking strategically in the face of tactical pressure, and taking a comprehensive and systems-oriented view of the workplace. A framework for strategic thinking is needed, a systems-oriented model that will help strategic project leaders move from tactical to strategic thinking.

Strategic project leaders have a responsibility for the bigger picture, which includes how they engage the people/talent within their organization, how effectively and efficiently they maneuver the organization over time, and how they use the other resources that are at their disposal. Of course, there are other aspects of organizational leadership of which leaders are stewards. These are simply examples of the bigger picture levers that leaders need to be aware of and which they need to be prepared to address and influence as they move from a tactical perspective to a strategic perspective.

What are the leadership skills that are necessary to transform a tactical project manager to a strategic project leader?

Tactical vs. Strategic Thinking

“In” versus “On”

Running a marathon requires a great deal of thinking, preparation, and work. Some of this work is very tactical. Yet, to be successful, you would need to step back to take a more strategic perspective, to raise your perspective to a longer-term mindset. Before you can get into your plan, you must stop to work “on” your plan. This is one of the primary differences between tactical thinking (i.e., working “in” it) and strategic thinking (i.e., working “on” it).

Operational or Recurring Work

Operational work is the day-to-day work of an organization. It is task focused and done by individuals or small groups within their organizations. In its Standard for Portfolio Management—Second Edition (2008b, p. 9), the Project Management Institute (PMI) refers to the “management of ongoing operations.” Another name for this is recurring activities. These are the activities that produce revenue within an organization or provide ongoing value.

Organizations have been in operational mode since their inception. Sometimes they have been purely in “Just-Do-It” mode, or JDI. In any case, they have been focused on getting products, services, or results out the door to obtain their revenue or value for the organization.

Tactical Project Management

To be more efficient and effective in their operations and value production, organizations recognized that more was needed. Project management from a tactical perspective became the answer. As more and more organizations followed the guidance of Peter Drucker, especially that of his early works, most of them focused on “management by objectives.”

Project management began as a tactical tool to facilitate the execution of individual projects and programs, such as constructing buildings and roads and installing new hardware. Basically, project management was fostered by and used pretty much by the hard sciences. Then it moved into more of the business areas of organizations such as Information Systems and Technology, Human Resources, and Accounting, to name a few. These early days of project management coincided with the business schools' push toward “management by objectives,” first popularized in 1954 by Peter F. Drucker in The Practice of Management. It is a process of agreeing upon objectives and obtaining buy-in from management and employees.

While “management by objectives” required a precise written description of objectives and timelines for their monitoring and achievement, it did not enable organizations to evolve over time by accomplishing strategic objectives, such as entering a new market, increasing revenues, reducing costs, or returning greater value to shareholders. Soon the new rallying cry became “management by projects,” which evolved after Tom Peters launched a management revolution with his book, In Search of Excellence (1982). Organizations now adopted project management as a tactical tool for executing projects.

Tactical project management focuses on the boundaries of the project. From Initiating through Closing is the focus. Tactical project management uses the best practices as outlined in various publications available from PMI. These include A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008a). Standard deliverables in tactical project management include the project management plan and its subsidiary plans.

Strategic Project Management

The next step was the application of project management as a strategic tool. Because all projects proposed by an organization's departments and divisions compete for resources and support, strategic project management views all of the organization's projects together as components of a portfolio and makes strategic choices in their support. “While project management and program management have traditionally focused on ‘doing work right,’ portfolio management is concerned with ‘doing the right work,’” states PMI's Standard for Portfolio Management (2008b, p. 6).

Strategic project management differs from traditional strategic planning with regard to the following:

“It aligns key business processes of strategic planning, strategic goal setting and enterprise project management.”

Since project portfolio management improves visibility across different projects and their tasks, it also prevents resource conflicts from escalating to upper levels of management, where they waste executives' time and effort.

Basics of Project Portfolio Management

The Project Management Institute released The Standard for Portfolio Management in June 2008, to fulfill the need for a documented set of processes that represent generally recognized good practices in the discipline of portfolio management. According to PMI, “Portfolio management is the coordinated management of portfolio components to achieve specific organizational objectives. Portfolio management is also an opportunity for a governing body to make decisions that control or influence the direction of a group of components (a subportfolio, program, project or another work) as they work to achieve specific outcomes” (PMI, 2008b, p. 6).

The steps of portfolio project management are applicable to any enterprise: Assess the merits of the organization's various proposed projects, weigh them against each other, and select and support those projects whose execution will deliver the greatest value to the bottom line. The drivers of a portfolio of projects are:

  • Where the company wants to go and what it needs to do to achieve the goal (e.g., improve its return on investment, increase shareholder value or gain market share).
  • Tactical concerns, such as improvement projects' individual departments need to undertake in order to become more efficient or effective.
  • Problems whose correction requires a project or program.
  • The need for organizational change management initiatives that prepare people to move in the desired direction along with the organization.
  • Strategic intent and prioritization provide direction for determining the financial resources that should be allocated to the portfolio.
  • The strategic intent is mapped onto a set of portfolio components (i.e., projects and programs), including their resource allocations. These components are managed according to the portfolio management principles outlined in this standard.
  • Each program corresponds to the delegated subset of the overall strategic intent, which it will deliver by means of the allocated resources.
  • Each project is defined by its contribution to the portfolio's strategic intent, and can then be managed according to principles published by PMI.

Tactical Thinking Versus Strategic Thinking

Tactical thinking, and the subsequent work that is done because of it, is critical for making sure the work of the organization gets done well.

An example is to imagine the very simple goal of getting to work each morning. You have a great many options: you can walk, bike, hitch-hike, drive, share a ride, take the train, fly, or be shipped parcel post. Those are strategies. Once you know your strategy, you then select the tactics that will fulfill the chosen strategy. If you decide to walk you would put on the proper clothing, comfortable shoes, and take all the supplies you would need both for the walk and for work. You would not gas up your car, call a friend to ask what time they are leaving, or crate yourself up and go parcel post. (According to urban legend it has been done.) Your actions match your goal.

Tactical thinking helps you go about accomplishing your day-to-day work. It achieves short-term results. Using tactical thinking is necessary, but you may lose sight of the bigger picture. It is like someone in a maze who cannot see the pattern but concentrates on each step; turning right or left according to the directions they were given.

Jeanne Leidtka defines strategic thinking as “a particular way of thinking that gives the strategic thinker a mental model of the complete system of value creation from beginning to end, helping them understand the interdependencies within the chain.”

This course focuses on strategic thinking in the workplace. To be successful as strategic thinkers, we need to recognize that the organizations in which we work are systems. Thus, being a strategic thinker requires an understanding of systems thinking.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of looking at a situation from a holistic perspective, recognizing that a system is made up of different parts that are connected. In systems thinking, a person seeks to understand a situation by exploring the different factors, connections, and interactions that shape a situation. This is crucial because an action in one part can have ripple effects throughout the entire system. From a performance perspective, a systems view recognizes that performance occurs as a result of multiple parts and connections within an organization.

Systems can be simple or complex and can have tangible elements, such as processes and products, as well as intangible elements, such as peoples' attitudes, beliefs, values, and perceptions. Complex systems are comprised of smaller subsystems that usually have hierarchies and are integrated so that they contribute to the larger system. Each system consists of roles, inputs, outputs, processes, and outcomes. A few examples of systems include:

  • Mechanical systems such as the automobile engine. The auto engine is an excellent example of a system in that there are multiple components, each serving its own independent function (such as a fan, the radiator, or the battery). Even though they each have an independent role, they collectively create the necessary interrelated inputs, outputs, and processes that make the engine do its job, which generates the power to move the automobile.
  • Ecological systems such as the predator and its prey. This example has different animals feeding on other animals within the ecological system. You have likely heard stories of one part of the ecological system affecting the entire system. Recently, bees have been in the news as rapidly dying, causing significant ripple effects on crops and other plants that other animals need to survive.

Systems Thinking vs. Tactical Thinking

Tactical thinking tends to be very linear in nature, and suggests that there is a direct cause-and-effect transaction for every situation.

Example: Joseph is not as motivated as he could be; therefore, he did not perform as well as possible in his role.

In this example, the cause is that Joseph is not motivated and the effect is less-than-optimal performance. However, from a systems perspective, various actions across the system can have different and unique effects on other parts of the system. In the case of Joseph, the assumption that motivation was the cause for Joseph's good but less-than-ideal performance is one possibility. However, it is not the only possibility.

In Joseph's situation, there could very well be other factors that prevented him from achieving optimal performance. As a supervisor, team leader, or individual supporter, you need to think like a chess player looking at the whole board to see the big picture. This will help you better understand the entire system and how to avoid traditional, linear assumptions.

Understanding what “systems thinking” is allows us to step back and look at the system from a long-term perspective. Thinking about the long-term perspective is where our strategic thinking comes into play. Strategic thinking helps you reflect on your larger, longer-term goals. To be an effective strategic thinker, you need to be able to understand the organization as a system and select the appropriate places to focus your energy. Rather than being involved in the day-to-day, tactical efforts, strategic thinking requires a leader to step back to take a look much further out into the horizon. This is focusing “on” as opposed to being “in.”

Environmental Factors

The Leader as the Strategic Steward

Effective leaders are stewards of the resources they have at their disposal. These resources include:

  • People/talent: today is a knowledge economy, and people are often what make the biggest difference in an organization. By this, it means their willingness to engage, leverage their talent, and commit to the organizations. Leaders have a direct influence on how they steward others' energy by the way they “show up” as a leader.
  • Time: Leaders often influence the pace of their organization and its ability to move quickly or slowly. Time is money. Time is results for customers and stakeholders. Leaders can influence how efficiently the people resources use the available time. Given how valuable time is as a resource, leaders who waste time are not efficient or do not pay attention to the pace of the organization (when to move fast, slow, and keep an even keel) are missing out.
  • Resources: Resources include financial resources, technology, infrastructure, and so on. Given limited resources in today's frequently financially constrained workplaces, leaders must make strategic choices about resources—including what resources are needed to most effectively accomplish the work.

Leaders have a responsibility to the bigger picture, which includes how they engage the people/talent within their organization, how effectively and efficiently they maneuver the organization over time, and how they use the other resources at their disposal. Of course, there are other aspects of organizational leadership of which leaders are steward. These are simply examples of the bigger picture levers that leaders need to be aware of and be prepared to address and influence as they move from a tactical perspective to a strategic perspective.

Managers are often required to focus on their slice of the pie (i.e., where the pie is an organization, and a slice may be a department or division); however, as a leader, one is expected to consider all slices of the pie.

From Tactical to Strategic

To move from a tactical to a strategic perspective requires you to have a framework. Having a framework provides soft boundaries to help guide you and organize your thinking. Management Concepts has created the Management Concepts Framework for Strategic Thinking to help you move from a tactical to a strategic thinking perspective.

There are four elements to the Framework for Strategic Thinking (Exhibit 1). They are:

  • Working processes and structures
  • Team and organizational capacity
  • Customer focus
  • Strategic relationships
Framework for strategic thinking

Exhibit 1: Framework for strategic thinking.

Work Processes

When looking strategically through this lens, a leader asks, “How can our processes and infrastructure(s) be more effective in order to get the work done?” The leader, when looking through this lens, focuses on the processes and structures needed for long-term success.

Strategic questions a leader will ask in this framework include:

  • How will our processes hold up if our workload doubles?
  • To what degree does our organizational structure support the process flow of our work?
  • How can we organize the workspace to help the work get done more effectively?

Team and Organizational Capacity

When looking through the Team and Organizational Capacity lens, there are many strategic questions leaders need to ask themselves. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Does our organizational culture align with our espoused values and desired strategic goals?
  • Who are we attracting and hiring?
  • What do I need to do to get the talent I need to do the work?
  • What knowledge and skills does the organization need to develop in order to be at their best?
  • How can we ensure knowledge is shared among members of our workforce?

Customer Focus

From a strategic viewpoint in the customer focus lens, the leader raises questions such as:

  • Is this the best way to engage our customer?
  • Are our processes customer-friendly, or are they focused on being friendly to ourselves?
  • What kind of customer engagement would be ideal from their perspective?
  • How do we view the entire group of customers from a bigger vantage point?
  • What are we doing to build long-term customers?

Strategic Relationships

To move to a strategic perspective, the leader needs to recognize that the world, or more specifically, the organization does not revolve around his or her needs or interests. Everyone has their own interests. A tactical perspective meets those interests. A strategic perspective looks to create mutually beneficial relationships. Therefore, strategic questions include:

  • Who do we need to have strong relationships with in order to be successful?
  • Who needs to have strong relationships with us to be successful?
  • How do others perceive us?
  • What is the level of trust and loyalty we aspire to have with others, and vice versa?

Ripple Effects


Many organizations have strategic plans and strategic goals that they strive to accomplish. These are important guideposts for leaders at all levels of the organization. At the same time, many strategic goals are intended to be long-term and future focused. On a day-to-day basis they may not help a leader be able to think strategically.

Additionally, leaders are also required to work inside and outside of their organizational boundaries. In order to be an effective partner and leader, you must be able to recognize and identify others' strategic interests, too.

There are a number of ways to explore and understand others' strategic interests: researching artifacts, reviewing and studying previous decisions and priorities, and even discussion with others to inquire as to their most strategic interests. Each approach is a valid and an effective way to assess and understand others' strategic interests.

The Why's

One tool that may be helpful in uncovering others' strategic interests is a questioning technique called the “The Why's.” If you have ever spent time around children, then you have seen this method in action; as you've probably noticed, one of their favorite questions is “Why?”

As a leader wanting to think more strategically and better understand your own, as well as others', strategic interests, asking the question “Why?” can be an invaluable tool.. As a leader, asking “Why?” repeatedly can uncover the roots of a given interest and learn, in the most strategic sense, what is behind the interests.

Gaining Leverage and Creating an Impact

In almost every organization, there are many places where leaders can make a difference. In fact, in many organizations there are often too many places where strong, strategic leadership is missing. Therefore, you may be inclined to try to work on everything.

The effort and energy spent in trying to accomplish everything may be well intentioned; however, it is important for a leader to consider where to focus energy in order to think strategically about where he or she has the most leverage and can make the largest impact. This is affectionately known as getting the biggest “bang for the buck.” Let's define these two key concepts:

  • Leverage is the place in which you apply pressure in order to gain a more powerful perspective or advantage in moving something
  • Impact is the quality and depth of a decision in relation to results

Given that time and resources are limited, and leaders are expected to be good stewards of people, resources, and time, the leaders who think most strategically seek to gain leverage in key strategic areas and make the most beneficial impact possible.

This type of thinking requires that you are able to consider multiple perspectives, analyze the ripple effect of a decision from each perspective, and then determine where the most progress can be made.

Forecasting the Ripple Effect of Strategic Actions

When taking a strategic perspective, it can be extremely helpful to look at the strategic element from others' perspectives. To do this, a leader can take a 360-degree look at the situation by looking through the eyes of others and trying to put himself or herself in their shoes. This truly requires a leader to step back and look on the situation, rather than look from within the situation.

This reflective 360-degree look at the situation allows a person to understand implications of strategic actions that he or she may not have originally considered. This type of disciplined thinking can take time, especially when one is exploring and talking through various potential implications and ripple effects. However, the ability to maintain a disciplined approach to this type of strategic thinking is what sets leaders apart and fosters the ability to find the most action with the greatest leverage to make the most beneficial impact.


Use the following table to consider parts of the Strategic Framework in which you have the most detractors. By placing an “X” in the corresponding boxes as part of your thinking you can not only identify the distracters, but also overcome them.

Questions Working Structure and Processes Organizational Capacity Customer Focus Working Structure and Processes
What lens has the most resistance to be worked on within your organization?
What lens has the biggest opportunity for improvement?
In which lens do you feel weakest?
From which perspectives does the suggested action(s) require people to unlearn and relearn something new?
What lens has the most support for action?
In which lens do you feel strongest working?
Which lens has existing efforts or momentum you can pick up?
Which lens has the least number of systemic ripple effects into the other lenses?
Which option is the least costly one?

Final Words

Organizations continue to mature from the very necessary tactical project management to strategic project management. This change, although not widespread as yet, is taking hold as more and more organizations recognize the total use of project management. This involves attaining the mission and vision of the organization through strategies and initiatives.

Once this move to strategic project management through the use of portfolios has occurred, those same organizations are now maturing even further to enhance strategic project management through strategic thinking. This is just another step on the journey to a fully “projectized organization.”


Drucker, P. (1954). The practice of management. New York: Harper & Row.

Peters, T., & Waterman, R. H., Jr. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America's Best Run Companies. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Project Management Institute. (2008a). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide)— Fourth Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2008b). The standard for portfolio management—Second edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

© 2009, Don J. Wessels, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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