How to Align Projects with Strategy

Projects are the way businesses deliver strategy. Without projects that help move the company forward, strategic plans are an interesting but irrelevant document.

According to a PMI-sponsored Economist Intelligence Unit study of executive leaders, an average of just 56% of strategic initiatives have been successful, yet 9 out of 10 execs said strategic initiatives were “essential” for competitiveness in the coming years.

There are a lot of potential reasons for the success gap outlined in the study, but one thing is clear: executives have to act on strategy by setting up projects that deliver chunks of it, and managers and teams have to make sure that the projects they’re running are aligning with the current strategic goals of the enterprise. 

It’s clear that communication is essential, and everyone in the organization should be clear on the goals and priorities.

How to Find Your Strategic Plan

As a senior manager or portfolio office manager, you should know what your company’s strategic plan is. Without it you can’t know if the work you are doing is contributing to getting the business to where it wants to be.

Ask your boss for the company’s strategic plan. If there isn’t one, and you hold a senior management position, then you should be lobbying for the Board to write one (and start polishing your resume at the same time – the company that doesn’t know where it is going isn’t going to be going anywhere in the long term). The least you can do is write one for your division.

Get your project to mesh with the company's project

Don’t Let the Day Job Get in the Way

You’ve uncovered the strategic plan, or written one if you didn’t have one in the first place. Well done. Unfortunately, at this point it is still just a document. When you get back from that strategic planning workshop, your day job awaits, and it’s highly likely that you’ll get sucked in to doing all the day-to-day stuff. Strategy can be delivered on another day.

The risk here is that another day stretches into next week, next month, and before you know it, you’re ticking over into another year and you’re still no closer to hitting any of those lofty goals.

Here’s how to tackle the inertia of delivering your strategic plan in three simple steps.

1. Break the Strategy Down

First, you need to translate the strategy into actionable projects that can be prioritized. Work out how you are going to achieve each of the points of the strategy. This will involve talking to the people who wrote the strategy to uncover exactly what they meant by “increase market share.”

When you know what actions are required to make the strategy into reality, shape those actions into projects. Each project should relate to one area of the strategy and be able to show how it measurably helps the company move forward in achieving its goals.

Prioritize all the projects – some will be more helpful for hitting your strategic targets than others, or they might have to happen in a certain order to get the most benefit. You can organize these into programs of work with consolidated reporting dashboards to track progress over time.

While you are at it, look at the other projects that your team is working on and prioritize them against the goals of the strategic plan. Each project that you have on the books should clearly align to one of the strategic targets. If it doesn’t, review why you need to keep working on it.

Some projects may not be explicit in the strategy but still need to be done. For example:

  • Regulatory projects
  • Compliance projects
  • Projects to address failings in customer-facing processes or to maintain customer satisfaction.

These generally fall into the category of keeping the business going, but most strategies don’t have a goal that says “stay in business.” Maybe they should. I’m not suggesting that you stop all projects that don’t align to the strategy but you should at least have a discussion about whether or not they are contributing in other ways.

If they aren’t, close them down.

2. Commit to it. Publicly.

Hold yourself to account. Write your plans into your objectives for the year. Tie achieving those goals to your bonus, or the bonuses of your team. Tell everyone about what you are going to do. Get your projects into the newsletter and on the front page of your intranet.

At this point you’ve still done very little towards achieving the strategy through the delivery of your projects, but at least you’ve now got the threat of public shaming to keep you going.

3. Get to Work

There is no substitute for actually doing the work. You have small enough chunks of work to do, neatly packaged into projects. The projects feel manageable and achievable. No excuses.

These strategically-led projects should form part of your working week, just like any of the other initiatives you are working on. Plan your time accordingly, and adjust your workload so that you don’t take on too many other things – things that stop you hitting the milestones for your strategic projects. Use your prioritization process to ensure that the most important work gets done first.

Looking Forward: Ongoing Prioritization

Strategic alignment isn’t a one-off activity. Every time a new project is proposed you should take it through a prioritization process and make sure it meets whatever criteria you consider necessary before work starts. If you don’t have a prioritization and acceptance process, I recommend you set one up now.

Without it, you’ll find new work comes in to your team in an uncontrolled way, and you’ll be expected to divert resources to projects that don’t hit any of the strategic objectives. Not only does project prioritization help you manage your resources more effectively today, it also lets you manage the funnel of upcoming work so you know what you’ll be working on in the future.

Strategies change, and you may find yourself moving projects and people around in order to meet new objectives. That’s fine; very little in business is set in stone and as a leader you need to adapt and change with it. A process that aligns project work with strategy can also be flexible to allow for those shifts when they happen.

Everything you do should be aligned to making the business better and helping it achieve its long-term goals. The ultimate conclusion of not focusing on that is that the company goes out of business, is restructured or acquired, and few projects maintained. It really does pay to define a great strategy and then implement it!

Software can help you manage your project prioritization and make it easy to shift resources between projects and programs when you need to. The program tracking and resource management built in to lets you see who is working on what and how a program of work is performing, so you can quickly make changes to make sure you hit your strategic targets every time. Take a free trial.

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