Home » Planning » Is it Our Project Management Or Our Strategy That Is Not Working?

“Our strategy is sound. It is aspects of our operational execution that are not.” Information Week, April 25, 2011, pg 46. Attributed to Cisco CEO John Chambers.

Is it Our Project Management Or Our Strategy That Is Not Working?Boy, how often have I heard that. Another variation is that if we just didn’t have any problems our projects would all be on time, on budget and unqualified successes!

The trick with any strategy is to have one that aims our team from where we are to where we want to go. The insight is from where we are now. If we just pick any old strategy and say “this is what we are going to do” and it is not somehow related to where we are now then the success of that strategy will be quite rare. Otherwise, everyone’s successful strategy would be to “be number one by out hustling everyone else!”

We had just delivered are biggest project, on time and with good quality. Our customers were surprised and delighted (and some were even not ready to take the product because they didn’t believe we could ever deliver anything on time). However, another part of the strategy had been to practically “give away” our current product so that we could grab market share. Our super new product, while having good early reviews, only received ho hum reactions from the market. The combination of a bland new product (we manufactured over a million of them in anticipation) with the give away of our current best selling product arguably sent the company into a financial tailspin.

Our Strategy Should Align With Our Project Management CapabilitiesAt the “all hands” meeting all the VPs were there to tell us what went wrong and how they were going to fix it. At one point, the current speaking VP said something like “our plan was fine but the execution was not!” A very courageous (project?) manager stood up and said “no, we executed and delivered, you did not.” The president of the company had to rush in to save the dumbstruck senior VP. The manager’s comment had impact because of its unstated implication. We executed and delivered, so if anything was wrong it was not with our project management execution, which had been the whipping boy for years. By getting the execution right it highlighted that the real core problems may be elsewhere (e.g. mediocre product design and selection, low margin sales tactics, etc.).

Our strategy and related plans need to be the bridge from our current capabilities to where we want to be. If we find ourselves regularly saying that the strategy or plan is fine but we just don’t execute the project well, then we need to honestly review our senior level approved strategy and plans. They may not be the effective project management tools we need them to be. (Compare this with official project plans that don’t line up with actual plans.)

Do you have any good or bad examples of strategy and execution alignment – and how you fixed it (if needed)?

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4 thoughts on “Is it Our Project Management Or Our Strategy That Is Not Working?

  1. Alan Bishop says:

    Bruce,
    The problem described states that the bland product design was the problem. The project team were tasked with developing a product and introducing this to the market.

    From what I can see it looks like a fragmented organization and a ‘them and us’ attitude is the primary problem. The project manager does not see that he/she has anything to do with the product design and the VP is all to quick to point fingers.

    In truth the product design was a problem. The team, for that is what they should be, could have reviewed this together to establish what they could have done differently and learned from this situation.

    In a healthy company the organization owns the problems and the successes. Products are not designed by Executives, this is a team effort.

    Given a situation like this I would look to tools that enable the organization to work together across all disciplines. I attach an exampole of one of these enablers in my Blog.

    1. Bruce Benson says:

      Alan,

      Yes, the product design was very much separate from product/project development and done by a design team. However, the team could make suggestions and often influence the design. With that said it was pretty clear that product acceptance was a fairly hit and miss proposition. We would put out a dozen products and inevitably a few would be a hit. No one was ever consistent at being able to pick which ones would be a hit. (Our biggest selling – industry changing – product was rejected by multiple customers until one finally took it and consumers subsequently loved it.).

      So while we could, as we always did, attempt to improve our design, the key notion was that getting the project execution right (even if the design/requirements were not always top notch) helped bring to light that what many took as “common wisdom” about what was regularly going wrong (e.g. poor project management, poor execution, etc.) wasn’t the case. The biggest problem here was not the confusion, which I’ve found before and is part of pealing the onion of problems. Instead, it was the “deer in the headlights” look of too many very senior managers who literally didn’t know what to do next when they found that their pet scapegoat of many many years no longer existed.

      Of course, if it was a healthy company, there would not be this discussion! The trick, as you mention enablers, is to help these companies break these patterns and get healthier.

      Thanks

      Bruce

  2. Bruce Benson says:

    Dave,

    Great quote. Too often in a corporate environment the strategy (and the senior manager) are assumed correct (they even say so!) so it must be the implementation!

    I see this as a variation on “if you keep doing the same thing, you are going to get the same results” but it is not always obvious to the strategizer.

    Thanks

    Bruce

  3. Dave Gordon says:

    As Winston Churchill famously observed, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Lousy decisions have consequences that last far beyond the intent of The Decider. And a Decider who insists that the fault lies with the implementers needs to be able to back up that accusation, or face a public challenge. Kudos to the Challenger!

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