What is a Strategic Project?

What is a Strategic Project?

A client asked recently, “What is the difference between a Strategic Project and a regular Project?”

Here are my definitions:

Regular Projects

All Projects are transitory in nature. Projects are typically things we want to create, build, document, launch, or develop. We typically implement these Projects over a period of several weeks or months until they are eventually completed.

Projects have a finite lifespan. When we complete the Project, we congratulate ourselves and bank the learnings as part of an After Action Review. Then we archive the old Projects from our software platform of choice and replace them with new ones.

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, states that a Project is any desired result that requires more than one action step (Task) to get it done. In my view, this definition sets the bar too low. My recommendation is that in order to qualify as a Project, it needs to meet the following 3 criteria:

  1. The Project will take more than 1 week to complete, and
  2. It requires more than 1 action step (Task) to complete, and
  3. It warrants being mentioned at a weekly meeting to discuss progress and assign next steps

I strongly urge my clients to meet every week to discuss the status of each Project and assign new Tasks to move each Project forward. Most importantly, what is “The One Thing“, the most important task that can be completed in the coming week to move this project forward?

Regardless of how many Tasks you have scoped out for each Project, chunk it down and make sure “the one thing” (the critical path) is agreed upon each week. And more importantly, follow up at next week’s team meeting to make sure “the one thing” got done.

In my opinion, if the Project does not warrant being mentioned in a weekly meeting to discuss progress, and does not require a series of sub-Tasks as action steps, then it is not really a Project. Such items would be better tracked as simple standalone tasks that you check off when it is done.

Strategic Projects aka “Big Rocks”

What differentiates Strategic Projects is that they are typically chosen at strategic planning meetings after conducting a SWOT Analysis. They are major initiatives we undertake to improve our organization and/or move us in the direction of our chosen long-term strategy and BHAG.

Some methodologies refer to Strategic Projects as: Key Initiatives, Priorities, Big Rocks, WIGS (Wildly Important Goals), or OKRs (Objectives + Key Results). They are essentially the same thing.

Less is more” when it comes to strategy execution. It is better to do less and do it well than to take on too many things and spread yourself too thin. Your mantra for success should be: “Focus on less to achieve more”.

Many companies try to do far too much. There are lots of things you could do, but you can’t do everything. Strategy is about making choices. Strategy is about making trade-offs. The essence of strategy is choosing what you are NOT going to do.

I often say to clients, “If you are not making any trade-offs, then you don’t have a strategy”.

I recommend that clients focus on no more than 3 Strategic Projects to work on each quarter and then meet to review and update their priorities every quarter as part of their cadence of strategy execution.

Strategic planning is not about setting goals and coming up with a long to-do list. Rather, it is about going through a disciplined process to identify the small handful of Strategic Projects that will have the biggest impact on your future success and to focus on those projects to the exclusion of everything else.

Business author Jim Collins said, “If you have more than 3 priorities, you don’t have any priorities“. You get the picture. You need to be willing to forgo working on everything else and solely focus on these Strategic Projects.

Due Dates

When setting due dates for any Project, I recommend a conservative due date. Most people fall victim to the “Planning Fallacy“. Choose a due date that the project owner is willing to be held firmly accountable for. Yes, we “hope” to get it done sooner, but the due date is a “must”; a commitment that everyone is counting on.

Questions to Drive Project implementation

The key to successful business execution is to meet every week to discuss the status of each Project and ask these questions:

  1. Any changes to the scope? (beware of scope creep)
  2. On track to complete the project, as scoped, before the due date?
  3. Key achievements since our last meeting?
  4. Any roadblocks?
  5. Lessons learned?
  6. Next steps?
  7. What is “The One Thing”?  (the most important task that can be completed in the coming week to move this project forward)

A mistake I see many clients make is to just capture a list of Tasks with due dates several weeks into the future (e.g. due in 4 weeks’ time). If you do this you run the risk of getting 4 weeks down the track only to find that a Task did not get done and now the overall Project is significantly overdue. I recommend breaking these larger Tasks into small weekly chunks, and following up at your weekly meeting to hold people accountable for getting these weekly Tasks done.

For more on this topic, here is my process for choosing your Strategic Projects (Big Rocks).

Need help? Contact me to discuss your strategic planning needs.


Until next time…