The Trouble With Alignment – Guest post by Elizabeth Harrin

20 July 2016
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The trouble with alignment

It seems like everyone is talking about ‘strategic alignment’ these days. The project management world is full of conversations about how projects need to be aligned to strategy. If you manage a project portfolio it’s probably one of the things you spend a lot of time thinking and talking about too.

But there is a teeny tiny flaw with the discussions around alignment.

The trouble is that you can align anything with pretty much anything.

What Alignment Looks Like

When we talk about ‘alignment’ to strategy, what we normally mean is that we’ve got a list of strategic objectives, set by the people high up in the organization. Then we’ve taken our project or program brief and reviewed it against those objectives.

Then we’ve said it supports or helps deliver enough of them to be considered ‘aligned’.

But it’s subjective. You can twist and debate the semantics of the strategy and what your project is all about so that alignment is simply ticking the boxes.

Be a world-class provider in our industry: Yes, my project supports that aim.

Grow international revenue by 28% by 2020: Yes, my project supports that aim.

Diversify into XYZ products by acquiring capability in the market: Yes, my project supports that aim.

Ensure we remain compliant in the face of ever-increasing regulation and legislation: Yes, my project supports that aim.

After all, have you ever seen someone put forward a business case for a project which they say is completely unaligned to strategy? No – because they know it wouldn’t go anywhere. Being able to argue for alignment gets your project over the first hurdle.

Maybe the issue is that by the time your company strategy is distilled into the bullet points that adorn the CEO’s office wall, they are so broad that you can make the case that more or less anything fits with them. And often, we do.

Why Contribution Is Better Than Alignment

So what should we be looking for instead?

It should be all about the contribution.

What contribution will this project make to achieving the strategic objectives? If we put this project in our portfolio, then what contribution will we see pop out the other end?

In other words: it’s what happens after alignment that matters.

Alignment is the thing that happens at the beginning. It’s the pre-requisite for getting your business case to the table. It’s what portfolio managers do when they look at how new projects and programs line up against the existing span of work and assess whether they should be approved or not.

Understanding The Benefits

Contribution is informed by being clear about what business benefits you are going to get as a result of this program of work. The benefits are the reason you’re doing the project: projects are started because you want something to change; you want something that will add a tangible difference to your current business landscape.

The benefits might be small, or they might run into billions of dollars, but they are there and they are the rationale for pitching this project to your decision-makers in the first place.

Those benefits are the strategic contribution that your project is going to make. You should be able to adequately articulate them, and check in on them regularly with stage and gate reviews. They shouldn’t be made up benefits (I don’t need to tell you that, do I?), and you shouldn’t try to force financial benefits where there are none. Often strategic projects don’t pay back in the same way others do and while your project might make a huge contribution to the strategic goals it could well have negligible financial returns.

I can’t claim the credit for coming up with this idea: Steve Jenner, author of several books that have become the de facto standard for portfolios and benefits management, spoke at an event I attended recently (the PMI UK Power Talks in London) and wowed the crowd with his take on moving the conversation about alignment forward. So all credit to him for helping me digest and refine my own thinking on the topic.

Keep Contribution Under Regular Review

Checking fit with strategy is something that we should be doing at every step of the way, and that turns it into something more than a piece about alignment. We need to ensure that the projects we work on, time after time, deliver a tangible, real contribution to achieving that strategy. They aren’t just aligned, they are immersive and they promise to help get us over the line.

Project managers are used to this concept of something being important up front in a project and staying important as you progress through the project life cycle. We do it with risk management. We do it with stakeholder management. There are lots of elements of project management that involve working out our current exposure or position. You’re failing in your role as a project manager if all you do is then put that risk register or stakeholder analysis in an electronic folder somewhere, a corner of your project management software, and forget about it. These are (or should be) living documents that are constantly updated – like the contribution your project is making to business strategy.

Of course, this shouldn’t mean that you ditch conversations about strategic alignment. No one wants to do projects that are totally irrelevant to achieving the business strategy. The point isn’t that strategic alignment is worthless, it’s that it is only the start. What happens after your project is neatly aligned is what counts.

How do you measure the contribution of your projects and programs?

About the author:
Elizabeth is an author and project manager who writes the blog A Girl’s Guide To Project Management. She has also written 3 books about managing projects and is a frequent speaker at conferences on project topics. You can find her on Twitter @pm4girls.
Elizabeth Harrin SQ Web





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