Are You A Pawn Or A Strategist: Keys To Project Leadership

The One As He Is.Strategists are among out best known leaders. Through their vision, countries are established. From their focus on an organization bigger than themselves, they make a lasting impact. Clearly, a strategic mindset helps you make an impact in the world. You might think that strategy is an idea for generals and executives only. It is true that executives bear the greatest responsibility for setting priorities and goals.

The Nasty, Brutish and Short Life of A Pawn

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pawn as follows:

1. Chess. Any one of the sixteen pieces (eight per player) of smallest size, value, and capability in a game of chess.

2. fig. and in figurative contexts. A person or thing of little value, status, power, etc.; a servile agent, a minion. Now chiefly: a person or thing used by another for his or her own purposes.

In chess, pawns are frequented regarded as expendable pieces. Few players have qualms about sacrificing a pawn to secure victory. Clearly, nobody wants to be seen as “a person of little value.” Unfortunately, that’s the reality for a large number of project managers. Research have found that 1/3 of projects are not aligned with the organization’s strategy. Consulting firm PWC found that a large portion of projects are not aligned to strategy:

PwC’s maturity assessments show that only 62% of programmes have an established or mature link between objectives and organisational strategy. (source: Portfolio and Programme Management 2014 Global Survey)

 Unfortunately, this mercenary attitude is common in chess and in organizations. Let’s apply this chess analogy further to see the downside of being a pawn.

  1. Sacrifice.

 Pawns are often sacrificed in the pursuit of victory. In organizations, a project team disconnected from the strategy attracts few defenders when the strategy changes.

If many of your projects are sacrificed due to problems or as a result of strategy changes, you will be perceived as a pawn.

  1. No access to the big picture.

Pawns serve on the front lines of chess. This position and the high probability of being sacrificed means there is little value in pawns learning about the big picture. You project may play a significant role in preparing the firm to be acquired. If you’re too deeply concerned with firefighting, executives will see little point in sharing that information with you.

Missing out on the big pictures means you may omit important stakeholders. Your ability to relate to executives and leaders will also suffer.

  1. Perception of marginal value.

 In organizations with limited familiarity with project management, project managers may not be understood. If management does not understand the value of project management, there’s no reason to give practitioners high regard.

Perceived marginal value is one of the reasons why project managers don’t reach the C-suite.

Tip: If all you exclusively focus on schedules, controls and technical details, you may be viewed as solely concerned with details.

  1. Limited mobility

Compared to the Queen, Bishop or Knight, pawns have very limited ability to move across the board. Project managers who are pawns have the same limited mobility. Your ability to climb the ladder of power and impact will suffer.

You might be completely happy in your current role and have little interest in climbing the ladder. What if your company (or client) eliminates your role? Your ability to seamlessly transition to a new role will suffer.

Given these significant drawbacks, you should set your project management career sights higher. If you’re just starting out, you may feel like a pawn. It’s an unpleasant feeling. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to last forever – you can escape the pawn

The Benefits of Becoming A Strategist

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. ” – Michael E. Porter (Harvard University)

Strategists know which battles to fight. In business, General Electric famously decided to focus on products where they could be market leaders – GE choose where to compete. In war, the Allies carefully planned where to enter Europe. Likewise, strategic project managers understand the importance of choosing which projects to work on.

Tip: Strategists learn from history – you can start with PM History Lessons: D-Day by Paul Bruno.

  1. Access to strategic projects.

Is your company expanding to Asia for the first time? That expansion will require projects. Seeking out projects that directly advance the organization’s strategy is the mark of a focused strategist.

  1. Seeing the forest instead of the trees – the portfolio perspective

 Unlike pawns who simply go where they are told, strategists seek to put projects into a broader perspective. As part of your project planning, seek to meet with your organization’s Project Management Office (PMO) or the executive sponsor. Ask about previous projects and future projects that set the context for your work.

You will gain the immediate benefit of understanding your stakeholders more deeply. In the long term, you will be able to predict which projects will receive support.

  1. Lead the Project Management Office (PMO)

 By adopting a strategist approach, you will have the mindset to lead a project management office. Imagine having fifty or even one hundred project proposals on your desk and limited resources. That is but one example of the strategic challenges you will have leading a PMO.

  1. Work with consultants successfully

 Many large organizations rely on the consulting expertise of Deloitte, PWC, McKinsey and other firms. As a strategist, you will be well placed to understand the purpose of a consulting project. Rather than viewing consultants as disruptive outsiders, you will seize the opportunity to learn from them.

Do you consider yourself to be a strategist? If so, how did you achieve that perspective? In my case, I have learned aspects of strategy from my study of history and reading books. Strategy is something we need to learn to increase our value as project managers. To learn more about applying strategy to your projects and your project management career, read the Project Management Hacks strategy series at Project Management Hacks.

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About Bruce Harpham

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Bruce Harpham is the author of Project Management Hacks, a resource that helps project professionals improve their productivity at the office and beyond. Bruce’s corporate experience includes delivering major cost reduction projects at financial institutions in Canada. Bruce is an Anglophile, world traveler and book enthusiast.