Why PMs need to look beyond the trees to the forest

Focusing on project deliverables without keeping in mind the project strategy can lead to costly and dangerous mistakes.

In my project management training classes, I draw a simple diagram on the board that looks like a bunch of nested umbrellas. The diagram shows an overarching portfolio, under which are hierarchies of programs, projects, and iterations within projects.

I leave the diagram up for the entire two-day class because it illustrates an idea to which I keep going back: Every project has a context, the environment of a portfolio of programs in which your project or component resides. An unseen layer that could appear above portfolio in the diagram is strategy. Teams that focus on the delivery of individual iterations or projects often forget this strategic context or are not at the table when it is developed; both of these errors (neglect and incomplete involvement) can be costly and dangerous. When each team working at the iteration or prototype level understands the overall enterprise strategy that guides the portfolio, program, and projects they participate in, the business wins. Let's look at each hierarchy, starting at the iteration level and work our way upward.

Iteration level

If you're on a team determining which features should be developed in the first iteration, you're making a decision with strategic implications. If the features you prioritize don't highlight the competitive advantages of your prototype or don't generate the support and enthusiasm required to proceed, your project may not go forward or might not be competitive. The opportunity to build an early prototype, to prioritize properly, and to build user support for valuable innovations is a chance to shape the direction of the enterprise from within the project team. It seems to me that the clearer the enterprise mission and strategy is at the developer level, the more likely it is for good decisions to be made within the iterative development team.

Project and program levels

At these levels, we often encounter the Program or Project Management Office (PMO), especially in larger enterprises. I've seen PMOs who operate at a very high strategic level, evaluating each project under strict ROI and strategic governance procedures. Every day, these PMOs question the strategic alignment of their programs to the business's goals and require that scarce resources spent pursuing IT projects clearly demonstrate a positive contribution to business value. Others PMOs, unfortunately, focus on adherence to process or "project management ritual," as it's often called in the agile community.

Don't get me wrong -- compliance with accepted PM methodologies and procedures is critical and adds structure and discipline to project efforts, but project discipline alone has never added an ounce of business value; digging a hole effectively and efficiently, on time, on budget, and on scope, still results in just a hole. When the PMO is viewed as a strategic asset and participates in the portfolio analysis that helps determine which IT investments will be made, he has the chance to inject reality into often abstract conversations, by ensuring that executives understand the real skills and resources available and their cost. Even if the PMO is not at the table when portfolio decisions are made, a clear communication channel ensures that the PMO keeps his eye on the strategic ball and isn't chasing technology or vendor promises for their own sake.

Portfolio level

The executive suite is where portfolio determinations are made and budgets are allocated. This is the place, with all the experience, maturity, and senior firepower, where one would be forgiven to expect some strategic depth and portfolio discipline; yet I've consulted with firms on the governance of their IT decision-making processes and found many that lack a basic strategic mechanism or a governance process that administers control.

One of the lessons of the latest financial meltdown has been, in my view, the dismantling of the fallacy that those in the executive suite know better. In fact, as has been illustrated, many are flying blind, hoping for the best and focusing on short-term or personal goals rather than corporate and shareholder welfare. Therefore, strong IT leadership can add a lot of value here. By participating in the conversation and ensuring that executives are taking a holistic look at the portfolios, programs, and projects they are generating, IT can help ensure that resources are going to the most fruitful programs. Executives are just as susceptible (some would say more so) to the promises and dreams of vendors and partners. Executives are also, unfortunately, highly likely to see the IT portfolio in narrow, parochial terms of what benefits their division or constituency, rather than their strategic objectives.

Best practices

So what does this all mean for the project manager toiling on a specific IT project? Here are my three best practice tips for keeping the overall project strategy in mind:

  • Participate: The best scenario is one in which IT has a seat at the table as corporate objectives and strategies are being devised. Even if you aren't invited to the strategy meeting, you can still contribute by posting your ideas and opinions in forums, suggestion programs, user committees, online communities, and various social media outlets.
  • Study: Learn what directions your organization is thinking about taking in the future. Many enterprises have internal communication programs that are set up to ensure that all associates have a clear idea of the overall corporate strategy. Publicly traded companies must report to the SEC, and these reports are gold mines of data about the strategies, challenges, and risks associated with the company's market, competitive position, and product mix. So are analyst opinions, which often cut to the heart of the challenges with a company's strategies. In addition, trade magazines are one of the deepest sources of data on the risks, concerns, and opportunities in a particular vertical market, and they provide budding corporate strategists with plenty of great ideas about what the competition is doing and about what IT can bring to your firm.
  • Think strategically: IT professionals and project managers who can think past their project and can see the entire context of the organization's portfolio and strategy, are enabled to make the right decisions at every level of the project, from selecting the right components to pilot in a prototype or early iteration, to determining which projects should live or die depending on their overall contribution potential.

See the forest

Every executive respects employees who bring strategic maturity to their role, with the ability to see beyond the trees of their own interests and specialties to the forest of markets, competitive positions, and winning advantages. IT leaders and project managers who can keep their eye on all the levels of the corporate IT portfolio, from the strategic to the iteration level, can contribute in a unique way to keeping the company on track, productive, and focused.

Get weekly PM tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Project Management newsletter, delivered on Wednesday, offers tips to help keep project managers and their teams on track. Automatically sign up today!