Teaching 'Strategic Project Management' at University College London

Although the technical aspects of project management are important, they are not sufficient to ensure real success. For that, we need a more strategic approach.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

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Given the high value of learning from IT failure, it is important to support the work of serious graduate students in this field. For this reason, I recently spoke to a master's degree class conducted as part of a program on Strategic Management of Projects at University College London (UCL). You can listen to a recording of the class by clicking the audio player at the top of this post.

This session consisted of an interactive discussion, held over Skype, between Dr. Andrew Edkins and me. This class follows a workshop I conducted in London, several years ago, with another group of UCL students from the same program.

Also read: Project governance and failure

The UCL program on strategic project management brings together advanced practitioners from diverse fields such as IT, oil and gas, and construction. Unlike typical courses, this course goes beyond technical project management, such as Gantt charts and similar tools, and reaches into the underlying business drivers associated with projects. This strategic approach brings a high level of intelligent discrimination to project management, a field that sometimes lacks sufficiently strong connection between technique and desired outcomes.

Lack of alignment between IT and lines of business is frequently cited as one contributing cause of failed projects, however, this same problem holds true with project managers. Despite the importance of technical project management skills, tools and techniques alone do not create projects that meet business goals. After all, everyone has seen projects that were completed on time and within budget, yet provided little business benefit or value to intended recipients. Even with the best Gantt charts, such projects are an exercise in futility and a waste of time.

The solution lies in helping project managers understand the deeper business goals and collaborative political dynamics associated with projects. This is imperative because the most important drivers of project success often have little to do with technical project management. For example:

  • Defining clear business goals and measures of success. Success requires being clear about why we started the project and what makes it important. To avoid a drifting and runaway project, we also must specify metrics and a strong definition of planned outcomes. In other words, project success requires great clarity around goals, both at the start and conclusion.
  • Creating broad stakeholder buy-in. Complex or large projects typically involve multiple groups competing for attention, resources, features, and so on. For example, external consultants want their share of the project budget while internal lines of business may be concerned distracting the attention of key resources away from the primary job. Managing these conflicting goals and priorities is a fundamental condition for success that involves political savvy and sensitivity to business operations.

These two points are typical examples in which technical project management skills are not sufficient to ensure desired outcomes. The goal of strategic project management, therefore, is linking project process and technique to a more comprehensive understanding of the business context and environment. Strategic project management recognizes that delivering high value requires project managers to go beyond the usual definitions of success, which are typically limited to time, scope, and budget.

The one-hour class addressed many of the issues I discuss in this blog, filtered through the lens of a respected project management course in the UK. Listen to the discussion by clicking the audio player at the top of this post.

Do you agree with this view of project management?

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