Effective project portfolio management (PPM) practices are crucial to survival for organisations faced with an uncertain economic and political climate.

So says Leabetswe Bomvana, a South African strategy executive with experience working in large, JSE-listed corporates as well as within the local public sector, who explains that the completion of projects on time and within budget – with increased focus on project performance – is a must for businesses wanting to achieve their strategic business initiatives, as projects are the bridge between strategy and results.

Bomvana looks at three common mistakes many businesses make when it comes to the execution of strategy, making her recommendations on how to overcome these.

Organisational project management maturity

“In my opinion, the only way to achieve the desired organisational results is through focusing on the right projects – doing the right projects and doing them well. In doing this, you’ll successfully deliver against your strategy.”

This also means that the organisational project management maturity must be considered, and the first step to building project management maturity, she says, is to ensure that there’s no misalignment between the strategy and portfolio, programme and project management initiatives.

“So, strategy will be at the forefront, the right project portfolio in the middle, and then measurement, or business results, at the end. And if there’s a disjoint at any point in that cycle, your strategy execution processes will be completely futile.”

One of the most common mistakes Bomvana has experienced when a business is trying to execute on its strategy is a lack of executive acknowledgement of the organisation’s maturity. “You cannot enter a donkey into a horse race,” she states. “And what I mean here is that, from a maturity perspective, it is very important to first understand and comprehend where your organisational maturity is, and where the gaps are, and then decide on the desired project management maturity level.”

She affirms that companies often don’t want to acknowledge or ascertain their current project management maturity, moving straight into strategy execution, and that unfortunately, is based on an execution structure that is not mature enough. “Essentially, the business will not get the results it’s looking for and the strategy execution office will be blamed.

“Over time, I have looked into where the biggest point of strategy failure lies. Is it in formulation? Measurement? Change management? In my findings, an overwhelming 70 percent of global organisations have reported that their biggest strategy failure is in execution. To a large extent, this can be attributed to skipping this vital project management maturity assessment.”

“Project management offices (PMOs) can make a huge contribution to building organisational project management maturity through the establishment of best-fit standards,” adds Guy Jelley, CEO and co-founder of Project Portfolio Office, a project and portfolio management (PPM) tool and solutions provider committed to growing the project management profession.

“The true value of a maturity assessment lies in the insight it offers, as well as the improvements that are identified and can be implemented. It is crucial then to choose a maturity assessment model that will deliver both sufficient detail as well as practical actions and suggested working techniques to ensure growth and improvement. This allows for a better understanding of the organisation’s project management maturity, providing immense value,” he comments.

“Project Portfolio Office is able to assist here with its PPM maturity assessment service. This service can help companies to assess and benchmark their capability to successfully deliver projects and programmes to achieve strategic success.”

Bomvana’s advice is to take a serious look how much the company can carry from an execution perspective, ring fence this and, between the immediate and the medium term, carefully consider which initiatives should be carried out.

“Not every organisation needs to end up at a level five maturity on the Capability Maturity Model (CMMI) continuum. Some companies, based on their core business, might find themselves at a level three project management maturity, and that’ll be sufficient to sustain the core business objectives and to support or gear it towards successful delivery.”

Another caveat Bomvana warns of is the ‘accidental project manager’. “Some companies do not have an appreciation for the necessary rigour around project management and execution, and this is often confined to the IT department alone. When a business does not have the correct project management capacity in place, it becomes acceptable to expect employees to execute on projects over and above their normal day jobs. This places immense pressure on strategy execution.”

Inadequate reporting and unrealistic implementation plans

Having an organisational culture that lacks the rigour of project management can also adversely affect reporting, Bomvana continues. “Pressure from the executive committee (EXCO) to provide visibility on the execution portfolio, without the underlying project management structure, can lead to very subjective reporting. This will have a knock-on effect on the impact on performance. Having project management capabilities in place, as well as an open culture from the CEO-level down, encourages accountability and more honest reporting, has a positive influence on project management maturity, and will inspire accurate reporting and better visibility on strategy execution.”

“Strategy execution must be monitored via adequate reporting that puts information at the hands of executives to make the rights decisions and drive accountability,” reiterates Jelley. “However, the level of information required and tools implemented must align to PPM maturity, and executing a full, end to end project management tool implementation is not required for a high-level strategic view. The use of a simpler tool, like Project Portfolio Office’s PPO, can provide the right quality of reporting for exco to manage strategy execution.”

Another side effect of a lack of project management maturity is unrealistic implementation plans, Bomvana explains. “Without the necessary project management maturity, companies fall back on a shotgun fire approach, where they’re coming up with initiatives and executing them and then – without proper planning – realising that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.

“Frequently, businesses end up trying to boil the ocean, so to speak. They have unrealistic implementation plans and are trying to do too much. However, a lack of visibility into the number of strategic initiatives means that they cannot prioritise and do not have a comprehensive view of the landscape. Here, the EXCO should be held responsible to ensure that projects are prioritised based on the business benefits those initiatives are going to deliver (and are regularly reviewed), as well as that the right resources are in place.

“Portfolio, programme and project managers will weave the golden thread through all these different components of the project that need to come together, acting as the custodian for processes, templates and methodologies, and orchestrating the different parts that need to come together beautifully. Focused capability is an absolute necessity.”

Focused accountability and decision making at all levels

According to Bomvana, accountability and decision making at all levels speak to how integrated a business’ strategy cascading process is. “This looks at whether the strategy put together by the EXCO cascades down to the operational levels, providing all involved with visibility of the strategy and clarity of the execution path. They must also be rewarded for delivering against the strategic execution plan. In turn, the operational levels then have greater conviction in terms of how their roles support the delivery of the strategy.”

Structure and process underlined with a simple PPM tool

Bomvana maintains that the appropriate organisational structures and processes should be supported by a simple project portfolio management tool that aligns to the existing maturity and encourages improvement. “This helps organisations to focus on aligning projects and programmes to strategic objectives, defining the measurable KPIs and linking these projects and programmes based on priorities, all absolute necessities for strategy execution success.

“Strategy execution must be monitored via adequate reporting, putting information in the hands of executives to make the right decisions in real-time, and drive accountability. But the level of information required, and tools implemented, must align to project management maturity,” she concludes.