Be More Strategic


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strategyHave you ever been told that you need to be more strategic? Did you think to yourself, “Geez, I thought I was being strategic!”

What the heck does it mean to be strategic, anyway, and how do you know if you are doing it?

Recently, I was facilitating a workshop on inspirational leadership with my client and they were charged with transitioning from a tactical function to a more strategic business partner for the broader organization. The conversation was swirling around what it meant to be tactical vs. strategic and how they must make the transition to being strategic in order to survive. The leaders gave descriptions of what it meant to be strategic, the mid-level managers said, “but I think we are doing that.” After we went through a few broad descriptions, I got them very tactical…about what it meant to be strategic. 🙂

In order to have a good conversation about this topic, we need to make sure we are all speaking the same language on strategy and tactics…

OK, so what is strategy?

I like the Wikipedia definition for strategy:

Strategy is a high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty.

Hmmm…sounds like every project I’ve ever managed! 

If you are managing projects, you are implementing strategy…a plan to achieve one or more goals. You don’t have to necessarily be the one defining the strategy to “be strategic.” You simply need to be able to articulate the strategy, a.k.a. be able to talk about the business value of the project and help ensure alignment of that vision with the goals of the project.  (And NO, I do not mean Earned Value here when I talk about value. EVM actually has nothing to do with business value and return on investment (ROI). It simply tells you about the performance of your project according to the constraint. See this post for more on that topic.)

Now let’s look at the definition for strategic (the adjective we are all being told to be):

Relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them.

Hmmm…sounds a lot like being able to bring your stakeholders with you through the change (a.k.a. project) to me.

So, in order to be strategic, we need to be able to relate to the long-term strategy and tie our project and all communications about that project to that strategy. We need to bring people with us through the change process, always keeping the shining star of “why are we doing this” front and center in our thinking and communication.

So that means that to be “strategic,” we need to be good change leaders…

Project managers that are successful are not just good at project management. They are also good at bringing people through change. They help stakeholders understand the “why” for the project and connect the outcomes they are achieving to the overall business objectives and strategy for the project.

Make sure you know how to help bring others through the process of visualizing and aligning with the strategy your project was intended to create and you will be acting in a “strategic” manner.

Many times as a project manager or PMO leader, you are in the role of strategic advisor. You are positioned to help the organization figure out how to best invest their organizational assets in a way that gets the highest return on investment possible. Now if that isn’t strategic, I don’t know what is!

OK, but how is that all connected to tactics? Don’t we have to be tactical, as well, to be good project managers? Don’t we need to know the details?

Let’s look at this Wikipedia clarification of strategy and tactics:

The terms tactic and strategy are often confused: tactics are the actual means used to gain an objective, while strategy is the overall campaign plan, which may involve complex operational patterns, activity, and decision-making that lead to tactical execution.

Tactics is the means and strategy is the beginning and the end. What I see in this clarification is that all strategists need tactics and all tactics should be a part of a strategy (otherwise, why are you doing them?). It also tells me that as a project manager, you need to be competent in both. You need to be able to carry the team through the strategic process (and speak that language) and you have to be able to execute the tactical details required to get the day to day tasks done.

Being strategic doesn’t mean you can’t also be tactical. Tactics are simply the breakdown of a strategy into its executable parts. It’s the project plan or the PMO plan or the how are we going to get all of these projects done plan!

OK, so I think I’m doing that, so why am I being told to be more “strategic?”

When you are being told to be more “strategic,” what they probably mean is that they need you to think bigger. It doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. It just means that once we have taken that strategy and turned it into its executable parts, the tactics, we need to remember to come back out of the weeds and see the bigger picture.

It might also mean that you need to speak the language of the “strategic” ones in your organization. If you talk tactics to the strategists, you will lose them. If you are unable to talk about the big picture impacts of the work you are doing, such as speaking to them about the return on investment for the project or the business shift that will happen as a result, then they won’t know that you can think bigger and be strategic.

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