I’m sure you have heard people talk time and time again about how important it is to align project goals to business strategy – I’ve written about it before along with many other commentators. It really is the current challenge for today’s project leaders.
But what is often missing from the conversation is how you are supposed to do this. We acknowledge that it’s important and that it won’t happen without some kind of intervention, but what should that look like? That’s what I want to discuss in this article. First, though, let’s look at why it’s even a challenge in the first place.
Today, business strategy moves faster than ever before. It’s to do with keeping up with emerging technologies, a shifting consumer environment and the fact that strategies are now determined in a business environment that is dynamic and unpredictable.
I’m sure business leaders have faced challenging, fast-moving times (Industrial Revolution, anyone?) before, but for many of the workforce today, this is the first experience we have of trying to get things done while the sands of the economy shift beneath us.
Let’s layer on to that the typical experience of an early to mid-career project management professional. They simply don’t have the visibility of what the business strategy even is. Unless the communication that cascades down the organization is effective and consistent, or you have lunch with the CEO once a week, the chances of you knowing what the executive board members are thinking is virtually zero.
And even if you did attend a briefing on the company’s goals for this year, or the release of the new strategy, do you remember what it was beyond the poster about corporate values that is pinned up by the coffee machine?
Many of us are too remote from the thing called “strategy” to feel like it’s a contributing factor to how we do our daily work.
So, given that those are the challenges of strategically aligning projects, how do we bridge the gap?
Know The Strategy
First, you do need to know the business strategy. Sorry. Even if it is hard to get to, you need to understand the part of it that relates to your project impacts the work you are doing.
Here are some ways to find out about what that means for you:
- Read the business case. In many circumstances, you could have had a pivotal role in writing the business case so you may already know what is in it. If not, make sure you read it and understand it. There should be content in here that explains what the overall benefit is to the organisation and how it ties back to the company’s goals and objectives.
Tip: If that isn’t clear in the business case, you should ask your project sponsor why it isn’t in there, because it is a crucial element that’s required to prioritise the work.
- Talk to your manager.
Talk to your Project Management Office team. These people should have an idea of what the strategy is or how you can find out about it.
- Read the Annual Report.
There is often a summary of strategy and commentary on the direction the business is taking in the corporate annual report. Even if your company is not obliged to prepare an annual report, they may make some kind of statement that covers the views of the execs.
If your leaders are reluctant to share, specify that you only need to know how the strategy affects your project. All their secret plans to open overseas offices or whatever are irrelevant if they don’t affect your project.
But if they are reluctant to share the organisational strategy with you, that does tell you something significant about the business overall. Watch out.
Translate Strategy to Project Goals
Having gathered a basic overview of the company strategy, you now need to translate that to your project’s goals. What you want to do is match each of your project’s objectives to a strand in the strategy.
Let’s see what I mean through this example.
The strategy for the Acme Company is:
To be recommended by our customers 100% of the time and to grow our market share through launching a new product line for dog lovers next year.
That’s super high level, but for the purposes of this example it will do. Most corporate strategies can be boiled down into a few strategic pillars, and those are the headlines you are looking out for.
You and I are the project managers for two initiatives. Your project is to launch a new micro-site online for customers to share their dog pictures. My project is to launch a new product that offers microchipping for goldfish.
Your project has strategic fit. The micro-site will be a great marketing tool to build an audience of prospective customers who want to buy our new products for dog lovers next year. We could get them taking photos of their dogs using our new product. We can generate press coverage for product launches. You can see how there’s alignment between the company goal of launching products for dog lovers and launching something attracts dog lovers to our website.
My project has zero strategic fit. Goldfish are not a core product line for our business. It’s a fantastic idea (in this fantasy company – just go with it for now), but it’s not aligned to our target market of dog lovers and it doesn’t link to improving customer satisfaction or generating customer referrals. This would be a low priority project: so low that it shouldn’t really get off the ground because it doesn’t help us get closer to our business goals. There must be something else I could work on that would do more to help deliver the strategy until goldfish products become something the company wants to invest in.
This was a high level example, with a simplistic strategy and straightforward projects. If you are working on complex initiatives at a programme level, then you’ll need to do this piece of critical thinking for each project, and for each objective within the project. Each element of scope should have a clear link back to the company’s goals. You might have to look hard to find it, but it should all be justifiable.
Knowing how your project links to the organisational strategy is a huge morale boost for team members because they can see how their day-to-day work connects to the bigger picture, and that can be motivating.
Once you’ve got the information, and have the right mindset to make the linkages between objectives at project level and the big picture corporate strategic goals, you should be able to develop a feel for how projects align.