Developing the strategic project manager

Developing the strategic project manager

AXELOS’ research project – The Future Project Management Professional – found that project managers’ roles will evolve to become more strategic within their organizations. In fact, 90% recognized the need for a much stronger strategic vision that aligns with the overall business goals. In the first blog post to examine the findings of the research, Patrick Von Schlag, President at Deep Creek Center, considers the strategic project manager.

Patrick Von SchlagWhether or not project managers can be strategic has a connection to the size of an organization. The largest organizations have such a complex portfolio of programmes and projects that it’s difficult for management to view the whole or for individual project managers to connect the dots across all the moving parts. In small organizations the visibility both top down and bottom up is easier and more necessary.

That aside, project managers’ focus has to date been on output – scoping and producing deliverables. That’s not to say they have no visibility for intended outcomes, but they’re rarely around to witness whether benefits are realized after the project has ceased.

However, with the advent of agile there is a sea change in how benefits are realized with a heavy focus on early delivery of high value capabilities with projects and benefits realization existing simultaneously. Fundamentally, the project manager’s real deliverable is enablement: it’s about people doing work and how exactly to enable them to produce better results for their enterprises.

Wanted: strategic project managers

I think it’s essential for project managers to be more strategic; this means better education on not just the “what” in projects, but also the “why”.

The requirement is shifting from outputs to the empowerment of people, transforming how people work and meeting strategic, organization-wide objectives. This area is where organizations often fail because of a focus on deliverables, instead of the necessary focus on organizational change management (OCM), culture-related issues, and business outcomes. And the expectation from senior management is that project managers are going to figure out how to connect the dots between projects and the wider business.

Few organizations understand what their project managers do, and often presume that the project teams have a better understanding of the business needs then they often do – the business managers are focused on running and growing the business! Since few organizations have sufficient resources to staff both project and programme management, it is incumbent on a successful, strategic project manager to help focus the team on facilitating how people, process and technology will work together to facilitate the desired business results

The business case

The important “glue” here in developing strategic project managers is the notion of the business case.

Within PRINCE2® the business case is the centre of the universe, connecting a project to its output and the business vision; living before the project and continually reviewed through its lifecycle. Project managers need more involvement in the business case, defining the benefits, future capabilities, OCM and stakeholder engagement.

I think, therefore, it’s reasonable to suggest that most project managers would benefit from programme management skills by exposing themselves to the Managing Successful Programmes (MSP®) guidance and certification. This skillset helps a project manager to move beyond planning, execution, and control to help the organization successfully align the projects to the larger business outcomes needed.

The (self-)perception of project managers

Increasing the strategic role of project managers certainly needs a change in the way project managers are perceived in organizations. But it also needs a change in the profession’s view of itself.

Project managers have to be willing to expand their accountabilities beyond producing deliverables to becoming an integral part of the team responsible for how people, process and technology contributes to overall business results.
So, organizations need to fund training and development while measuring project managers if they want them to behave differently. As things move faster and delivery becomes more agile, the separation of project and programme management often ceases to be useful.

It’s more important for project managers to leverage agile approaches such as a focus on value-based prioritisation. That means an evolution in thinking from “what am I making?” to “why does what I’m making matter?” How will this be used and which stakeholders will use it or information from it to create business value?

What’s the role of best practice certification and CPD?

There is a need for continuous learning within organizations to help drive the shift in thinking from what project managers deliver to how it gets used by people – and that needs a strategic approach.

The industry should be finding ways to offer continuing professional development (CPD) and, Stateside, professional development units (PDUs) that would start to close the gap for project managers seeking greater strategic capability. For example, in the agile universe that could involve using methodologies like PRINCE2 Agile.

This ongoing development of strategic knowledge would move us away from an insular focus on outputs to a more value-based approach in which project managers are developing capabilities, not just tools and products.

For more information, see our Future Project Management Professional report.

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