The role of business strategy in agile project management

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Many people consider project management to be a clean and rational task that can only handle about facts and figures, action lists and statuses. To me, this factual side is only the closing stage of the task at hand. In its basis, project management should actually be about leadership, about showing the teams and stakeholders the way. Motivation before measuring how they are doing against project plans and work breakdowns. Fortunately project leadership is slowly starting to undergo a similar transformation as business leadership in tech environments has done lately: it is becoming more and more about impact and passion nowadays. And I love it!

Management versus leadership

The first thing that springs to mind in this discussion is the terminology of project management versus project leadership. Some organizations use it simultaneously for the same task, some organizations (start to) explicitly make a distinction between one and the other. I compare it again to the business versus project example. Within the daily business side of organizations we recognize managers as a formalized role and leaders that are more of a certain type of people that fill in the roles. Simply said, not every manager is a leader, not every leader is a manager per se. On the project management side of the organization the same truth applies. Project management is a definition of a certain formal responsibility. When you are the manager of the project, then there is a simple conclusion about higher management looking at you for answers. But whether or not you lead as a project manager that is up to you. Up to how you will fill in the task as an individual. Do you motivate? Do you activate the teams to be the best example of themselves? Or are you only looking at your spreadsheet of project planning software and ask for report-outs?

How any project manager can convert management into leadership? Add strategy and passion!

The difference between the two ways of running a project can be found in the basis for doing the project. Whether it is a tech-replatforming effort or the release of the first app-based customer contact, whether it is backoffice related or in direct contact with clients, any tech project should always be grounded in a higher purpose of the organization and its clients surrounding it.

You as a project leader are the one person that is responsible for finding the translation of that higher organizational purpose into the project goals. Only when you fully grasp the link between the project assignment and the organizational goals and strategy you are able to lead your teams instead of just managing them around an assignment. Think of the following situations.

Dream heavy, build lean, grow fast

Motivate passion into people

One way or the other, people in your organization are drawn to working at it. The fine grained reasons for this can be various, but especially in organizations where an explicit impact-goal is part of the strategy, you can be certain that it has something to do with this strategy. But only knowing that this impact-goal exists, that it is discussed on a managerial level and is tracked in a yearly report, is usually not enough for those people to be motivated. Making sure this desire for impact can be felt in the day-to-day operations is. So you as a leader in an organization like that has the obligation to link your daily efforts to that goal. Keep them motivated in their passion of desiring to deliver output for the organization they wanted to work with in the first place. This holds true for both business leaders as well as project leaders because after all, a project is nothing else then a temporary part of business.

Activated autonomy gives decision making power which eventually leads to improved quality

The only way to instill autonomy in your project teams is not done by just giving them the authority to decide but by handing them the ability to decide what to do in complex situations. When the teams are fully aware of the goal you are pursuing as a project, they are able to take decisions that help to guide the proverbial ship into the right harbor. In my freelance engagements I often say that “you cannot sprint when you are looking only at the ground right in front of your feet”. You as a leader need to show the teams where they are heading. The more tangible you are able to paint that picture, the better qualitative their decision making becomes and the less wasteful the project will be in either lost time or poor quality.

Effectively counter resistance in case of complex project phases

Tradeoffs in projects are always hard. When you want to work as lean and agile as possible, the first releases of a project will simply never satisfy everyone around it. So you as a project leader are always into change management. You need to be the one that explains stakeholders why their wish-list did not (yet) make the cut. When you are able to explain decisions in the light of the project goals and these goals are in clear support of the overall organizational strategy, this message becomes a lot easier to bring across.

And then there is you…

All previous reasons are aimed at other colleagues in the organization, but there is also you. You as a person are one of the people that needs to stay motivated as well. And working on a project that is clearly linked to the impact of your organization will simply make yourself more proud of the achievements you make with your team(s).

The frame, that higher purpose, should always be available

The message of this blog post is primarily meant to make you think about your own behavior in project management. Are you actively searching for that strategic link? Do you actively translate the organizational goals and customer benefits into project goals? Do you actively try to improve your success rate by leveraging business strategy? But apart from that critical self-questions, I also want to stress an important warning on the world around you.

Be sure that the link between organizational and project goals can actually be made at all! When you are asked to work on a project that has no link with the said impact that the organization wants to make, you should surely doubt the assignment overall. When you are spending time and effort on realizing some technical work without any sense of urgency because there is no direct link to the ambitions of the organization, imagine yourself what will happen when you have to escalate things or run into issues and need a discussion on budget?

Three simple questions to ask for setting the strategic stage of your project

So before you start any engagement as a project manager, and you want to maximize the chances of you making the impact you desire, make sure you are able to perform it as a project leader and keep the following three questions in mind:

  1. What higher goal does our organization want to achieve? (Whether it is BHAG, MTP, Mission/Vision or whatever statement available that is confirmed and preferably known).
  2. A. In what way do we need to improve customer experience to support that higher goal? OR B. In what way do we need to improve internal processes to support that higher goal?
  3. Which S.M.A.R.T. goal(s) can I define for the project to build progress on question 2, independent of A or B is in play?

Sometimes these questions ask for some firm searching, but you can certainly see this effort as an important defining moment in your engagement. Because when you transform your project management into strategy-driven project leadership, you can be sure that your results, and with that the measure of personal delivered impact, will go up.

Let’s make better tech business

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