PM Articles > Kent McDonald > Strategy and Delivering the Right Thing

Strategy and Delivering the Right Thing

by Kent McDonald

Have you ever worked for an organization that has too many projects? The situation is usually characterized by endless discussions of how long this particular project will really take, whether the hero project manager can take on one more project, and how you could implement the newest, shiniest methodology to "leverage the synergies in your over-allocated resources" (translation: burnout your employees).

I have worked at and with several organizations that face the situation described above. In most, the people at those organizations hold a very specific, and entirely unstated, assumption: every project on the list Has. To. Be. Done.

You don't have to fall victim to that same situation. You can choose to be honest with yourself and your organization about how much you can actually get done, and productively decide which things on the list will get tackled, and which ones won't. The thing that can help guide you through those difficult decisions is your organization's strategy.

Key Assumptions About Strategy

In order to understand how strategy can help you, it's important to know the key assumptions I hold when I make such a statement.

Assumption 1: Strategy exists to guide decision making. A good strategy does not specify the exact actions that your organization is going to take (i.e. a Strategic "Plan"), rather it provides guard rails that express the intent of your organization.

Assumption 2: Effective decision making occurs when decisions are made by informed people. The most informed people tend to be the ones doing the day-to-day work because they are closest to the action, and because they aren't dealing with filtered information like those near the top of the organization chart.

Assumption 3: Your organization executes its strategy via projects. A well laid out strategy will have some aspects that guide decisions for day-to-day operations in your organization. However, most strategy tends to drive change, and more often than not that change is driven through projects and/or product development.

Assumption 4: To ensure effective decision making, ensure people working on projects understand your organization's strategy. If you consider the first three assumptions and follow where they lead, you will want to make sure that the people working on your project(s) understand your organization's strategy so that they can make informed decisions consistent with your organization's intent.

Assumption 5: If people do not understand the strategy, they will ignore it. If the strategy is not actionable, they will ignore it as well, or they will interpret in a way that makes their lives easier. Strategies that are communicated by a 60-slide PowerPoint deck, that have a bunch of vague motherhood and apple pie statements, or that have a stunning array of goals, do not aid decision making.

Strategy needs to be simple, useful, known, and understood. Once it meets those criteria, you can use it to improve the chances of delivering the right things.

Strategy needs to be simple, useful, known, and understood. Once it meets those criteria, you can use it to improve the chances of delivering the right things, assuming you are willing to have some tough conversations once in a while. Here's how.

Using Strategy to Deliver the Right Things

1) Understand what the strategy is.

If you don't understand the organization's strategy overall, you are going to find it difficult to figure out how relevant your project is to that strategy. The first step here is to find out what the strategy is.

When I've worked as a consultant at organizations, I'll often start by looking around the organization's intranet site to get an initial idea. I'll follow that up with a meaningful conversation with someone who was involved in creating the strategy (if possible).

I have always found that a good way to describe a strategy in actionable ways is through the form of Decision Filters: "Will this help us do [X]?" where [ X ] is the intent of the organization.

2) Determine whether / confirm how your project fits within the strategy.

Given you understand the strategy as described above, apply your decision filter to your project. If you can't answer with a resounding "YES!!!" You have some work to do. You need to gain a better understanding of the project to see if it's beneficial to the organization at all. If you see things that indicate it's not beneficial, it's time to have a conversation with your project sponsor.

This is not an easy conversation to have. Project sponsors often fall in love with their projects, to the point that they have convinced themselves that this project is the organization's most important project. Never mind that it has no direct impact on the strategy, does not set anything up, and is operationally irrelevant.

Understand from the Sponsor's perspective why they want this project. Buried in even the most harebrained project idea you will often find an actual need to satisfy. Find that diamond in the rough, and then work with your sponsor to determine if that need is worth satisfying at all, and then whether the way they envisioned solving it is worth it. You'll find some needs that aren't worth tackling at all, some that may be worth solving with a properly sized solution, and some that are no-brainers that need to be solved no matter what.

The product opportunity assessment created by Marty Cagan, and my version for projects, provides a good list of questions to talk through with your sponsor to help you and the sponsor make this Start/Change/Kill decision.

3) Build a shared understanding of the tie to strategy with the rest of the team.

Assuming you are continuing your project, you need to make sure that the team working on the project understands the strategy and the project's relation to it.

This is the audience participation part of the project. Your results will not be nearly as good distributing a document to the team and asking them to read it. That's better than doing nothing, but involving them in a discussion with the sponsor is even more powerful.

A technique you may find helpful for reinforcing this tie is the problem statement.

Start by sharing the decision filter you came up with up for the strategy. Then have each person write their own problem statement on four separate Post-It notes, one note for each phrase.

    The problem of...
    The Impact of which is...
    We'll know the problem is solved when…

After you have each person read out their problem statement, have the team collaborate to come up with one problem statement. The real value in this exercise is the discussions that occur as the team comes up with a single problem statement and the deeper understanding that everyone in the team gains by talking through the project with their teammates.

4) Reinforce the linkage to strategy throughout the project

As the project proceeds, your team will face decisions along the way:

  • What items should we work on next?
  • How should we approach this particular item?
  • Should we work on more new stuff or fix the defects we run into?

When the team comes across these questions, encourage them to consider your decision filter(s) and use that to guide their decisions.

5) Revisit the Continue/Change/Kill Decision regularly

During retrospectives, or releases, or planning discussions, reflect back to make sure the project is accomplishing what it should. Ask your team to stop and consider whether the project is still heading in the right direction. Should you continue, change, or kill the project? Depending on the nature of your organization you may need to do this anonymously. If the general direction of the team is "Change," find out what changes they suggest. If the suggestion is "Kill," find out why they think that is the case and discuss the impact of doing that.

You'll also want to be prepared for the discussion with your sponsor should the team indicate Change or Kill. The kill option will always be difficult because of the impact of the sunk cost fallacy and how it plays on people's decision making.

It's about honest conversations

To deliver the right thing, and avoid working on the wrong things, you need a strategy that effectively guides decisions. You need to have honest conversations regarding the alignment of projects to that strategy. And you need to be willing and able to convince your sponsor that their treasured project is no longer a great idea. It may be unpleasant to start with, but I think you'll find it's a much more effective approach over the long run.

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