17 June 2019 / 9:00
In most of the literature on project, programme and portfolio management it is stated that strategies should be “broken down” into projects and programs through portfolio management, ensuring that the strategic objectives set by the top management are achieved. However, this presupposes that managers at the top of the organisation know exactly what will happen in the future, what expectations customers have regarding offered products and services and how these expectations can ideally be met. Project teams just work according to pre-set conditions and are not likely to learn, to adapt and to respond to new challenges.
Nowadays, there is a tendency to accept that strategy implementation is much more than a “top down” approach. The process of developing, formulating and implementing is rather intertwined and performed “bottom up”, triggered by the experiences made in projects by the people directly engaged with customers throughout implementation. For example, clients of a service provider in the field of project management trainings require increasingly online trainings in order to reduce cost and absenteeism of their personnel. The staff of that training provider recognises the changing demand and stipulates the development of a new blended and digital training offering, which is then formulated as new strategic area for the training provider by its management.
The question however is, whether this “bottom up” process of strategy development, formulation and implementation happens accidentally, or whether it can be managed in a systematic way? There should be at least someone in the organisation who collects lessons learned from the projects, analyses them and then incorporates the findings into the strategy development process. The portfolio management could take responsibility for it. However, it´s a rather bureaucratic process and the question remains, whether the staff, engaged in projects is willing to share all information and whether all relevant information is exposed to the managers at the top of the organisation. A rather radical approach is to let the staff – realizing the projects together with clients and partners – formulate the strategy and directly implement it in the work process. Some may argue this is not really a strategic but rather an incremental adjustment. However, it´s the same change that is going on in managing projects, from a traditional to a rather agile approach, giving space to the people working closely together with the clients, partners and other experts in the organisation. They know the best what is good for the company. The role of top management changes towards setting the frame for the organisation, facilitating commonly shared values and scanning the horizon for new developments.
Nevertheless, emergent strategies require a management to reach the intended results. Rémi Maniak and Christophe Midler describe with examples of Automotive Industry how this management could look like. They labled the process “multi-project lineage management” and define it as a specific type of interproject coordination that integrates a willingness to break the established rules, a continuous flexibility of given concepts, and an emerging strategic intent as recommended by exploration projects and strategizing. In essence, the emergence of ideas in interlinked projects is systematically analysed, facilitated and formulated into a new, strategic approach for the organisation to be followed in future projects. Instead of the traditional “ex ante” formulation of project objectives and the strategic intent, projects explore what´s possible and required by clients and trigger “ex post” cross-project learning and strategizing. In my opinion, this can be performed in all kind of portfolios, whether they deal with projects for products and services or projects for organisational change and transformation.
Top managers´ roles are to set a frame, balance the long-term perspective of the organisation with the short-term, operational perspectives of project teams, and facilitate the process of strategy formulation, development and implementation with all the staff. They could be supported by special portfolio (or programme) managers, coordinating efforts and sharing information with the people engaged.