How to Align Strategy and Delivery in a Business Organization
A common point of tension for many organisations is the way strategy converts into projects. I am assuming there is a meaningful strategy. This is obviously not true everywhere, but that is a whole different sort of problem which is not covered in this article. There are some organisations in which there is a clear and logical relationship between the things being delivered and the organisational strategy. The result is a poor alignment between the organisational strategy and what the delivery functions are doing and have the capability to do. So what can be done about this? Let’s explore together, in this article.
A Better Process
One possible way to improve the alignment between strategy and delivery is through better process. Rarely do I see organisations which understand how their strategy really links to their portfolio of projects and change and from the portfolio into priorities, projects and programs. The flow between these is often to be rather ad-hoc. The strategy is communicated from the centre using the normal management hierarchy and sooner or later it arrives with the people who select and govern projects – and hopefully it influences that project selection. Hopefully, it fundamentally determines the project selection! But we all know that this does not always happen.
Improving speed and clarity of strategic communication and ensuring alignment to portfolio management decisions are important steps in improving the linkages and alignment.
But I do not think deep down the issue between strategy and delivery is just about process. Clear process is useful, but constructive interactions between strategy development, prioritisation and delivery are not easy to encapsulate into a process – there are many feedback loops and iterative steps. Additionally, the evolution and spreading of a strategy through an organisation is as much a social activity as it is a formal process. It relies on the myriad of complex interactions that happen across an organisation.
I am not saying that better processes linking from strategy to portfolio management and from portfolio management to programme and project delivery would not help. But the fundamental issue is less about process and more about ongoing working relationships. The challenge between strategy development and project delivery is more related to things like culture, language, hierarchy and what is valued in an organisation.
For some years now people have been pointing out that even the best strategy is irrelevant unless an organisation executes it well. This is all well and good, but in reality the people who do strategy and the people who do execution, at least in larger organisations, tend to be quite distinct communities. These communities have limited degrees of interaction.
Strategy is a topic that excites "C" level members of the organisation, including the CEO. Execution is seen as less exciting. Unless the company is a truly projectised organisation whose core business is projects, then the degree of involvement of the most senior people in execution is limited. Put bluntly, many senior executives’ behaviour shows they value strategy more than they value execution, whatever they say.
What we need is a complementary relationship in which delivery is valued as an equal partner to strategy development, and in which the most senior managers take a real interest in the details of delivery management.
However, improving the situation is not just about strategists and senior executives reaching out to those involved in delivery. Senior delivery managers can help as well. One important aspect is that they can learn to talk the language of the most senior leaders of the organisation. Rightly or wrongly we are all judged by how we present ourselves, communicate and what we talk about. To get a seat at the highest table it is essential to talk like a member of that table.
Another thing is to work as a constructive agent in the creation of strategy – helping those who set strategy to understand both the constraints and the opportunities of the delivery functions.
Developing an effective working relationship between those involved in strategy development and those in project delivery is hugely beneficial, both for organisations as well as for individuals involved in delivery who want to progress their careers.
What’s Your Experience?
I’d love to hear the experience of those who have a great working relationship between the strategy and delivery functions about how this works and any specific key success factors you have.
Richard Newton is a consultant, author and company director. Chapter 2 of his book The Practice and Theory of Project Management, Delivering Value through change, (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008) looks at this topic in more detail.