Ah, projects, they are everywhere. Projects realise visions, turn dreams into realities and they translate organisational strategy into practice. Ultimately, they are the de facto vehicles for strategy implementation. While there is an obvious link between these two concepts, project and strategy, they are intriguingly often out of sync, leading to a gap between strategy planning and strategy implementation that costs organisations millions of pounds down the bin, resources that are wasted, and unrealised benefits.

Curious to know more on some of the typical reasons why this happens and to get some tips on how to close this gap? Keep on reading!

1) Strategic objectives definition and communication

The problem: quick, tell me what the strategic objectives of your organisation are. You have 10 seconds. Go! Hard job, wasn’t it? For most people that do not sit in the C-suite that remains a challenge.

The strategy is still too often an elusive concept that almost appears to be secret and reserved to the higher levels of the hierarchical structure. Moreover, strategic objectives are not always clearly defined, they remain in people’s heads rather than being explicitly listed and communicated to others. Yet, strategy is derived from the vision of the organisation and it answers the “why” of the organisation and of their projects.

Can we really afford not to know what drives the organisation forward and what role each of us plays in achieving a vision? The story goes that President JF Kennedy was once visiting NASA headquarters for the first time and when he encountered a janitor mopping the floor he introduced himself and asked what the janitor did at NASA. His answer?  “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”. Yes, strategy is everyone’s responsibility

What you can do about it: if you don’t know which strategic objectives the project is supporting, then there is no reason for that project to even exist. Ensure that you are clear on what the strategic drivers are. If they are not clear or have not been communicated, ask for them. Sometimes they just need a little help – from a facilitator, a comms team, a strategist, a PMO – to get out of the Managing Director’s head and be in everyone’s mind.

2) Project and programme alignment

The problem: even when the strategic drivers are clear, poor portfolio management practices can trump the attainment of such drivers. This would happen in a scenario where projects are programmes or not aligned with such strategic drivers, ultimately leading to a poorly defined, poorly prioritised and/or poorly balanced portfolio.

A portfolio optimised for maximum value is one where all the projects and programmes that form it have been assessed on the extent they contribute to the achievement of the strategic objectives and have been selected because they passed that first test. Sure, you might have a great idea for a project. However, does it enable the organisation to realise its strategy? If you answered “no” to this question, then it should not be part of the portfolio unless it is a compliance-related must-do-it type of project.

Simply think of it as the wheel alignment of your car: it the wheels are not properly aligned this will cause your tyres to wear down more quickly and unevenly. The same happens with your projects and resources. Are you sure you want to waste your precious and limited resources on projects that are not aligned?

What you can do about it: set up an assessment step in your demand management processes, where all projects still in the pipeline, in their very infancy just as a proposal, are validated against the strategic drivers by a portfolio manager, a business analyst or a PMO analyst. Do they offer a strong contribution or a marginal contribution to each objective? How would you rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, for instance? Make the assessment as objective as possible, using quantifiable metrics and/or examples. You cannot manage what you can’t measure, the saying goes.

3) Benefits realisation management

The problem: finally, benefits realisation management – the one that everyone would like to do well and yet so few manage to do properly. Benefits realisation management tops most of the project management annual reports when it comes to practices that deliver higher value to organisations. Unfortunately, it does also top the charts for practices that are most difficult to embed.

Let me provoke you just a bit with a fact that has always intrigued me: benefits are the reason why you should do projects in the first place, right? So why do people select and approve projects first and then try to fill the blanks with nice and often overoptimistic benefits for that project? Surely, you should start the other way around: define the benefits that you are after and then identify the projects that could lead to the realisation of such benefits.

What you can do about it: ensure that benefits are identified as part of the portfolio definition process, with clear ownership in the business. Work with your PMO or benefits manager to establish a process of assurance of the benefits, including their validation at each stage gate. Don’t leave it to the end to discuss how benefits are going to be realised, this should be considered from the offset!

The early identification, robust planning, and regular validation/tracking of the benefits of the project are the two ends of the strategy process – its implementation and its confirmation. Trust me: you will not know if you have been successful in your strategy implementation unless you have mature benefits realisation management in place.

Strategy might sound like a faraway concept from the project war rooms and this late project of mine, yet it touches the project from the moment it is conceived. In fact, it should be the reason for its conception! Make no mistake: ultimately all projects are strategic – they either make organisations run the business, grow the business, transform the business, or stay in business. Thus, if we want to close the gap between projects and strategy, we need to change our own understanding of projects first.

Projects should not be execution-driven but strategy-driven, not managed with a just-do-it mindset but with a long-term mindset. Strategy is much about projects. As for projects…they are all about strategy.