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Who Executes Strategy?

Posted by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin is editor-in-chief for PM Solutions Research, and the author, co-author and editor of over twenty books on project management, including the 2007 PMI Literature Award winner, The AMA Handbook of Project Management, Second Edition.

When I first entered the project management world, lo these many eons ago, there was a saying that “people do projects.” Project managers needed to remind themselves of this since, at the time, the focus was so heavily on software, templates and tools that the human element often got lost in the shuffle.

That imbalance has been greatly remedied over the past couple decades, with a healthy focus on “soft” skills, organizational behavior, and training. Meanwhile, project management has taken on an array of more strategic tasks, from benefits realization to portfolio planning and even strategy formulation. With our focus on the C-level – how to communicate with leaders, how to raise the profile of project management within organizations, how to create a career ladder for gifted project managers – we have once again taken our eye off the ball.

As the boss/villain in the screwball comedy film Christmas Vacation finally realizes, “It’s people that make the difference … the little people.” Yep. Santa would not amount t much without the elves. (Need a laugh? Clips from this classic here.)

And when it comes to executing organizational strategy, although reams have been written about why strategies fail, most organizations still overlook this basic fact.

In our own most recent research, we found that employees in most organizations are neither engaged in nor motivated by the strategy execution process. That’s bad news for their organizations, and a key reason why the overall score in the study for strategy execution and strategic project completion are so lackluster (3.45 on a 5-point scale).

In our drive to produce organizational results, we seem to have overlooked the actual source of productivity: the producers. Those who keep the role of people in focus reap the benefits: in the same study, organizations that scored in the top 25% on overall performance (“high performers”) scored dramatically higher on all these key measures:

  • The enterprise has the right people in place to successfully fulfill its strategic goals
  • Stakeholders receive the information they need to execute strategic projects effectively
  • Those responsible for execution are also involved in the strategy planning process
  • Project stakeholders understand how they can influence the successful execution of strategies
  • Employees at all levels feel engaged in and motivated by the strategy execution process
  • Employees are satisfied.

And … finally, a hopeful note on which to end the year … high performers are more than twice as likely as low-performing organizations to offer training in a variety of topics that relate to strategic execution, including project management, organizational change management, and leadership.

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