The Five Focus Areas For Successful Project Management

The skill of project and program management has become an increasingly important area of focus as more and more companies are realizing the value it has to their bottom line, top-line and overall culture.

Those of us who have been in the world of project management for a while know the multitude of challenges that are encountered in managing projects, many of which can cause major risks if not properly handled. However, organizations still underestimate the level of experience, complexity and the bigger picture of what it takes to succeed in delivering projects.

Are Organizations and Project Managers Missing the Bigger Picture About Project Management?

In this article, I’d like to explore what the bigger picture is and what is missing in terms of best-practices to make project management successful.

Surveys and statistics continue to show the alarming rate of project failures. All too often we hear about the few common causes of project failures, such as

  • schedule slippage
  • scope creep
  • budget overrun
  • quality flaws

But there are laundry lists of reasons why projects fail that you can search and find out about.

Even with PMP certifications at an all-time high, projects are still failing. Why?

Project management is not a set of tools or a list of tasks to check off and do. It is not a position that you can throw people into, send them to training and get them certified, and expect success as a result.

  • Projects require more experienced leadership with a focus on the bigger picture
  • More organizations need to incorporate project management into their culture to make it an integral part of their leadership efforts
  • Most organizations still don't really understand how critical project management is to their performance and growth
  • Even most project managers view it more as a technical or administrative skill - instead of a leadership position

Bringing the Project Management Lens Into Focus

Organizations are continually attempting to improve their project management practices, train their staff, bring in the right consultants and leadership to manage their critical projects and create a culture that utilizes best-practices. But what are the best-practices? Here is framework that takes into consideration the bigger picture and provides the lens in which to view the five focus areas of strategic project management.

The five focus areas include having: 

- Leadership Focus

- Strategic Focus

- Process Focus

- People Focus

- Learning and Growth Focus



By understanding the focus of each of these areas, project managers can sharpen and broaden their view to ensure they have the balance necessary to lead their projects successfully.

Leadership Focus

The effectiveness of leaders is measured not by how they lead but by the level of commitment, engagement, and satisfaction of those who they are leading. They set their foundation by following these principles:

  • One of the core principles that leaders follow is to identify the core values by which they treat the people and the rules of engagement for how everyone treats one another on their team. Then they model those values.
  • They establish the goals of the project with their team, and ensure everyone is aligned
  • They believe in their mission and inspire others to share the vision
  • They are not stuck on the status quo and always seek solutions and improvements
  • They believe in shared thinking and empower others to take on ownership and peer-to-peer accountability
  • They make people feel valued and ensure everyone gets credit for their accomplishments 

All this sounds logical and obvious, however, it almost always falls short because few organizations operate in an ideal environment. Every organization has its internal challenges with people, politics, workload, resources, dependencies, etc - all of which throw wrenches into projects and can easily throw this lens out of focus.

However, if the Project Manager is aware of each of these focus areas, he or she can readjust the dial and bring their leadership back in focus in the middle of trying to address the challenges.

Strategic Focus

Traditionally project management has been tactical and operational with the focus of performance being to deliver the project on time and on budget. Many organizations are still in that paradigm and haven't made the shift to view project management from a strategic perspective. However, high-performance organizations who are seeking new ways to improve competitiveness in today's fast changing global market are turning to project management to enable them to implement strategic initiatives to gain competitive advantage.

What this means is that the organization is raising project management to a higher level and highlighting its importance to the organization. As a result, project managers in charge of running these projects need to pay more attention to ensuring that:

  • The projects they are managing align to the strategic objectives 
  • There is a clear definition of what success means to the organization in implementing the project
  • The business value and the tangible impact that the project is forecasted to contribute to the organization is documented
  • There is an executive sponsor and the necessary governance to support it
  • The team understands the bigger picture of how the project aligns and contributes to the organization's strategy and goals
  • The team members think innovatively, creatively and strategically about the solutions, opportunities, threats and risks
  • There is attention to the change management needs that will ensure adoption and realization of the benefit of the project

Having a strategic focus to project management does not change the importance of the traditional focus of ensuring projects are on-time, on-budget and within quality goals. It just enhances them with the focus of achieving the business results that will contribute to the organization's growth and competitive advantage.

Process Focus

Project management processes have been around for a long time. The Project Management Institute (PMI) provides the industry standards, certifications and resources to continue to elevate the profession of project management. The industry framework for project management methodologies and processes can be adopted and customized in Project Management Offices (PMOs) or within groups to fit the culture of the organization and to align to the overall organizational goals.

Although many of the larger organizations have adopted some form of project management processes, a high percentage of them are still considered very low on the project management maturity model because they have not demonstrated better impact to business outcomes.

Some of the reasons why organizations are not reaping the benefits and improving results with their project management processes is because:

  • They are inconsitent in their approach to project management.
  • They do not enforce the use of standards and processes
  • They still underestimate the magnitude of project management on the larger projects and the importance of a formalized structure.
  • They get mixed results in their projects and haven't incorporated a continuous improvement process
  • They do not have an approach for increasing their project management maturity level
  • They have made their processes too cumbersome and controlling and have swung to the other end of the process continuum

Although small projects do not have the complexity or need for much rigor in project management disciplines, the larger projects definitely require more formal processes and techniques to ensure effective and efficient execution of projects. However, there is a balance between not enough process and too much process.

Project Managers have to find that balance to ensure they are utilizing an efficient and effective delivery process and not just checking off the boxes to simply adhere to the process. That balance includes keeping the focus on the schedule, budget and quality - while supporting their team under stress to be creative to deliver a quallity solution that meets the organization's best-practice guidelines.

People Focus

We are finding more and more evidence that successful project managers are skilled at leading people, building relationships and building strong teams.

Yes believe it or not, we have to focus on the people. In fact the #1 priority for project managers should be to focus on the people. This is where the biggest gap exists.

Managing the people requires the softer skills, yet it is actually the hardest part. So what do project managers need to ensure they do when they focus on the people?

Here is a list of 12 must-do's that involve the softer skills of leading people as a project manager.

  • Manage stakeholder expectations
  • Build relationships and collaborate with each indiviual team member one-on-one to earn their trust and respect
  • Build a cohesive team
  • Run effective status meetings
  • Keep stakeholders informed and engaged through a combination of formal and informal communications, written, verbal and visual communications
  • Build concensus with all team members every step of the way
  • Facilitate decision-making meetings and know how to push decisions forward in a timely manner
  • Ensure productive discussions of issues and resolutions
  • Facilitate meetings and discussions to identify risks and determine mitigation strategies
  • Know how to navigate the political culture and be aware of the turf wars and silos
  • Understand how to work with different personalities
  • Use emotional intellgence in all your interactions!

These may sound easy to do, and for the most part could be, when all is going well. However, we know that is almost never the case. There are unexpected scenarios that come up, pressures that are encountered, stress levels that are raised, and dynamics between people that can make communications quite challenging. The project manager needs to know how to manage all of that when the going gets tough.

There are a number of tools and techniques that project managers can learn to use to ensure the success of all their communications and interactions. These will be discussed in future articles in more detail.

Learning and Growth Focus

In focusing on learning and growth, the best-practice is to learn from your experience in each phase by gaining insight into what went well, what didn't, and why. This will help the project team improve within each phase and then sustain those improvements to help the organization adopt those changes for the long-term.

The continuous learning philosophy is taking on more and more weight in organizations today. In recent years, organizations have begun to focus on learning to support their strategies for corporate expansion and growth. According to Peter Senge, a leading expert in the field of organizational management, continuous learning is a key critical success factor for today’s organization to compete and expand its future.

A project manager can play a key role in conducting "Lessons Learned" sessions to get the team to really think through root causes of issues that took place and what would have prevented them. When lessons are captured and discussed through a structured approach, improvements can be incorporated into the overall process to improve the delivery of the existing project as well as improving the delivery of future projects.

In Summary

In summary, if project managers can broaden their view of project management to include more of a leadership framework that enables them to lead their projects and teams through the lens of the five focus areas, extraordinary results can happen!


rania-kortRania Kort is an Independent Management Consultant and Business Advisor with more than 20 years’ experience helping Fortune 100 companies successfully implement strategic initiatives. Rania has managed large-scale programs and programs, established and run PMO's and implemented process improvement in many different industries. She ran and grew an IT Management Practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers for more than seven years managing over 300 consultants.  Currently, she serves as an independent consultant focusing on achieving results through collaboration and a team leadership approach that ensures alignment, accountability and trust to develop high-performance teams.

If you would like to contact me, I can be reached either through my contact page or through LinkedIn.