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70% : The Long-Term and Strategic Side of Project Management

Part of the role of the Project Management Office is to help management think longer term.

A lot of what we do on projects is tactical. Meet this short-term business need, put the IT in to open this office, revamp this product in line with customer feedback, fix this bug. That sort of thing.

PMIIn a PMI presentation recently, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez pointed out some interesting facts about short-term thinking. Managers, he said, spend about 90% of their time running the business. They only spend 10% of their time on project sponsorship, project work and longer term planning.

Antonio predicted that in 5-10 years that would change. Managers would spend about 50-70% of their time, he said, talking to the project team, doing project leadership and all that longer term stuff. That’s about 3 days a week steering projects to success and delivering long-term, sustainable change. The remaining 30% of the week would be spent on running the day-to-day operations.

If it does work out this way, this is a huge upcoming change for leaders.

We’ll have to remain connected to the day-to-day while being more hands off. Whether that means having people who do the day-to-day for us, or empowering the people doing the work to also take a more active role in monitoring and controlling it, I don’t know.

The day-to-day, keeping the lights on, ensuring customers get served part of having a business still needs to happen.

Leaders still need to know about it too. We won’t get better at managing projects and setting the strategic vision for an organisation if we are too remote from the people actually doing the work. That’s a sure-fire way of coming up with random projects that don’t deliver what our frontline staff really want.

However, I definitely see the value in spending more time on the future, on alignment, on strategic goals and spotting trends and doing the right thing to keep the business profitable longer term.

And that is the kind of work that I got into project management to do.

“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”      Einstein


Antonio shared another interesting fact during his presentation. Today, he posited, people believe that the process and framework used is 70% of a project’s success. The theory is that if you use the right tools, and have team members qualified in the right frameworks, then success will follow.

Anyone who has tried to rigidly implement a project management methodology will know that isn’t the case. Anyone who has tried to follow a project management methodology will know that isn’t the case.

In practice, 70% of what makes a project successful is down to leadership and all the skills that leadership entails. The project management standards are quite light on teaching about leadership.

strategic-project-managementHaving said that, the methodology, tools and templates in use are important. This is a minimum hygiene factor. Having a solid approach to managing projects, programme and portfolios and qualified staff gives you credibility. It builds the confidence of your stakeholders. But it’s only 30% of getting the job done successfully. The rest of it is down to vision, communication and all the other things that go to make up good project leadership.

Supporting The Business

A modern PMO leader needs to help drive long-term thinking through making sure all of the basic stuff is there. For example:

  • Encouraging the use of the standard methodology, whatever that might be.
  • Ensuring there is a prioritisation process.
  • Monitoring the work and making sure that the monitoring processes are reliable.
  • Keeping on top of time, cost, quality and whatever else you consider to be success factors.
  • Supporting the use of a suitable PPM collaboration tool.

However, alone, as I’m hoping you understand by now, that isn’t enough. A forward-thinking PMO leader or Portfolio Director (and, to a lesser degree, project leaders at all levels in the organisation) also need to be thinking about what they can drive – where they should be spending their 70% to get the best return on the investment of their time.

Driving Change in the Business

With the basics in place, it’s time to think about what you can really drive in a leadership role.

The great news is that you have the choice about where you spend your time – at least, the most senior leaders in the business do. It takes a certain mindset to delegate some of the operational work to other people but if you have a strong team you should be able to find time to consider the longer term positioning of the project management teams and the business more widely.

So where should that 70% of time be spent? (Or, if you can’t commit to 70% today, and I doubt that many senior managers could, where could you look to spend a bit more time so that the coming change in focus for leaders doesn’t blindside you and knock you out of a job in a couple of years.)

How about on:

  • Finding the minimum viable processes, allowing skilled and experienced staff flexibility within the minimum common practices.
  • Strategic dialogue and decision-making so that the right projects make it through the prioritisation process.
  • Talking to people about how they do the job and what they want to do better but can’t today, for whatever reason. And then looking at how you can make those reasons go away.
  • Forcing discussions about prioritisation so that it isn’t overlooked or half-done.
  • Coaching project professionals and others in the organisation, nurturing talent and identifying talent gaps so that you can collectively do something about the future resource needs of the business.
  • Understanding the impact of risk, and planning, managing and embracing this on behalf of the leadership team.
  • Encouraging truth in reporting so that you create an organisational culture that is not afraid to report projects with a Red status or to close down projects that are no longer serving a business need.

Knowing that joining strategy to delivery is one of the main issues for change management at the moment, it’s worth thinking where you are on this journey.

It’s obviously too much of a jump for any leader in a project role to suddenly move to spending 3 days a week on visioning when that isn’t the culture of the organisation and the day-to-day stuff still needs to happen. But it is a good time to be thinking about how you are going to build more strategic and long-term thinking into your role. What do you need to set up around you so that you can free up the time to do this?

If you have ideas to share on this topic, please let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear how much time you spend on long-term planning today and whether you agree that this will be taking up more of your time in the future.


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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management


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    Thanks for the great post. Useful to think of the percent of time that we spend doing different tasks and reminds me of the Stephen Covey 2 x 2 where you can look at where you spend your time: important/not important and urgent/not urgent … Too little time is spent on the non-urgent, important strategic stuff!

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