What Makes a Project Strategic?

A client asked recently, “What is the difference between a Strategic Project and a regular Project?”

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Here are my definitions:

Regular Project

All Projects are transitory in nature. Projects are typically things we want to create, build, document, launch, or develop. We typically implement these Projects over a period of 1 month or longer until they are eventually completed.

Projects have a finite lifespan. We complete the Project, congratulate ourselves, and bank the learnings. Then we archive the old Projects and replace them with new ones.

A Project is any desired result that meets the following 3 criteria:

  1. The Project will take more than 1 month to complete, and

  2. It requires more than 1 action step (Task) to complete, and

  3. It warrants being mentioned at a weekly meeting to discuss progress and assign next steps

We should meet every week to discuss the status of our Projects and assign new Tasks to move each Project forward. If the Project does not warrant being mentioned in a weekly meeting to discuss progress, and does not require a series of sub-Tasks as action steps, then it is not really a Project. The item would be better tracked as a simple Task that you check off when it is done.

Strategic Projects

What differentiates Strategic Projects is that they are typically chosen at strategic planning meetings after conducting a SWOT Analysis. They are major initiatives we undertake to improve our organization and move us in the direction of our chosen long-term strategy and BHAG. Some methodologies refer to Strategic Projects as: Key Initiatives, Priorities, Big Rocks, or OKRs (Objectives & Key Results). They are essentially the same thing.

A winning strategy requires careful analysis, and a thorough understanding of how your industry is likely to play out, and getting very clear on the few, pivotal strategic moves your company needs to make in order to position yourself for future success.

I advise clients to use a cadence of strategy execution whereby you choose no more than 3 Strategic Projects to implement each quarter. You see, ‘less is more’ when it comes to strategy execution. There are lots of things you could do, but you can't do everything. Strategy is about making choices. Strategy is about making trade-offs. The essence of strategy is choosing what you are NOT going to do.  

Strategic planning is not about setting goals and coming up with a long to-do list. Rather, it is about going through a disciplined process to identify the small handful of Strategic Projects that will have the biggest impact on your future success and to focus on those Projects to the exclusion of everything else. (All of those components are built into our One-Page Strategic Plan).

The former CEO of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt once said, “Every leader needs to clearly explain the top 3 things you are working on. If you can’t, then you are not leading well”. Business author Jim Collins said, "If you have more than 3 priorities, you don't have any". You get the picture. You need to be willing to forgo working on everything else and solely focus on these Strategic Projects.

Due Dates

When setting due dates for Projects or Tasks, I recommend a conservative due date. Choose a due date that the person is willing to be held firmly accountable for. Yes, we “hope” to get it done sooner, but the due date is a “must”; a commitment that everyone is counting on. It has to be realistic.

2 Questions to Drive Project Implementation

The key to successful business execution is to meet every week to discuss the status of each Project and ask 2 questions:

  1. “What is the status of this Project in terms of % complete?”

  1. “What’s the ‘1 Thing’ that will get done in the coming week to move this Project forward?”

There may be more than one task associated with a project, but every Project must have at least one Task displayed underneath it at all times so everyone can see that the critical next step is, and who is accountable for carrying this Task out.

Ideally, the first Task you see under each Project is something that is due in the near term, i.e. within the next 1 to 2 weeks. I recommend chunking Projects down into bite-sized Tasks so you can meet each week to maintain forward momentum as these Tasks get checked off as done.

A mistake we see many clients make is to just show a sub-Task that is due several weeks into the future (e.g. due in 4 to 6 weeks’ time). If you do this you run the risk of getting 6 weeks down the track only to find this Task did not get done and the overall Project is now significantly overdue. We recommend breaking each Project down into small weekly chunks, set these chunks as Tasks, and follow up each week to hold the Task owner accountable for getting it done.

While you go about executing regular Projects and Strategic Projects in similar ways, the Strategic ones are the ones that the C-suite should track most carefully. 

Marc Daniels