Bridging the Strategy Gap: The Link Between Successful Projects and Competitive Strength

Mark A. Langley, President and CEO, Project Management Institute
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Mark A. Langley, President and CEO, Project Management Institute

The past few years have been tough on IT.  Large organizations have been battered by cybersecurity issues, with the number of cyberattacks climbing 40 percent in 2014 alone, according to the annual Internet Security Threat Report. Meanwhile, the global shortage of information security professionals stands at 1 million, which is contributing to more than 1 in 4 security projects being hindered by inadequate staffing, according to a global survey by 451 Research.

There has also been an explosion of new job openings for IT project talent – particularly on the complex multinational projects that are becoming more commonplace. Amid the short-term urgency of trying to fill headcount gaps with IT security professionals and on boarding new project talent, there is a danger of focusing on the urgent and losing sight of the important. What is important is the organization’s long-term strategic and financial goals. IT managers and HR recruiters must keep these goals top of mind, and hire talent that can help achieve them.

Well-implemented and well-supported strategies drive a company’s growth and evolution. In fact, according to Why Good Strategies Fail: Lessons for the C-Suite, an Economist Intelligence Unit report sponsored by PMI, 88 percent of organizations said implementing strategic initiatives successfully would be ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ for their competitiveness over the next three years. Yet61 percent of firms struggle to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and implementation, and just over half of strategic initiatives are successful. Clearly, there is a major opportunity in organizations across the globe to close the gap between developing a strategy and seeing pay-off on its goals.

​  In today’s highly complex and rapidly changing businesses environment, the ability of a project manager to convey progress, challenges and results is critical 

A key enabler for closing this gap is more effective project and program management. Because all strategic change happens through projects and programs, organizations need the capability to manage their projects successfully. It may help to know that there is a proven bottom-line cost for under performance: according to PMI’s 2016 Pulse of the Profession: The High Cost of Low Performance report, organizations waste $122 million for every $1 billion invested in projects and programs due to poor performance – a 12 percent increase over last year. The magnitude of this waste seriously impacts an organization’s ability to remain competitive.

What do you think is a major factor in separating leaders from laggards when it comes to project performance? In the classic debate between people, process and technology, PMI research indicates that it’s often the people. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit study for PMI, for example, showed that talent management issues are blamed for unsuccessful strategy implementation 40 percent of the time.

IT executives may think of talent as a “soft” issue but there are hard numbers behind the make-or-break role that talent plays in turning your CEO’s objectives into tangible results. Organizations in which talent management is aligned with organizational strategy have an average project success rate of 72 percent. When the two are not aligned, the rate drops to 58 percent. Moreover, organizations with aligned talent waste 33 percent fewer dollars on projects.

What kind of talent does it take to manage complex strategic projects today? It’s rarely the strongest technician on the team. It now takes a balanced mix of technical, leadership and business skills. All three must be present for success. Without the ability to lead fellow employees through often highly stressful change or to evaluate decisions from a business context, even the most technically skilled project manager is unlikely to succeed.

Communicating effectively with all levels of leadership is also essential. In today’s highly complex and rapidly changing businesses environment, the ability of a project manager to convey progress, challenges and results is critical. Success cannot speak for itself. An effective project manager must be comfortable discussing his or her initiatives transparently with leadership and be able to tailor content and style for executives at various levels.

Effective project and program managers are the ones who understand and can speak to how their work aligns with the organization’s big picture. This is a dramatic change from the days when cost, scope, and schedule were the only languages a project manager needed to speak. Line-of-business managers and C-suite executives don’t know the difference between Gantt, RACI and WBS – and they don’t want to. They just want to know how soon the project will be done and what business benefits it will deliver. A successful project, is only as good as the business result it drives.

As IT departments continue to juggle urgent issues like cyber threats and skills shortages and pressing demands from all over the organization for new technology solutions, it is easy to lose sight of overall strategy. By positioning project and program management as a strategic competency, aligning projects with strategy, and choosing project managers whose skills straddle business, leadership and technology, your IT organization will set itself up to be viewed as a key player on all the projects that really matter.

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