5 Steps to Fully Upgrade Strategic Planning at Your Small Business

By: on March 27, 2018

In the quest for growth, your small or midsize business (SMB) has to respond to changing market conditions quickly, often by adjusting your tech strategy. That is, of course, if you want to stay relevant.

This requires a different approach to how you’ve traditionally handled projects and technology investments. You need to rethink your strategic plan and make necessary adjustments to ensure your approach aligns with the increasingly digital needs of your business.

Here are five recommendations for shifting your strategy and project portfolio approach to give you a leg up in 2018 and beyond.

1. Adopt a Business Agile Mindset

2017 was the year “business agile” took off. And it’s not hard to see why: people equate agile with “better, faster and less expensive,” so it’s a no-brainer to jump on this trend.

But to successfully transition to an agile mindset, you have to change company culture and practices to reflect agile values. In other words, you can’t ask for things to move faster and still demand certainty and low risk.

Here are a few changes you should make to align with an agile mindset:

  • Frequent customer interaction: Define your customer/end user(s) and involve them in projects at every stage, from defining requirements to reviewing progress. This will help you gain actionable feedback and work toward continuous improvement.
  • Shared responsibility for results: Establish cross-functional teams, encourage emergent teams and give teams the power to problem-solve. Create group accountability for results, which will help boost performance.
  • Situational-specific strategies: Encourage emergent leadership and apply project-specific strategies. Static leadership and processes cannot adapt to change, so giving individuals the flexibility and freedom to challenge the status quo, e.g., “this is how we’ve always done it,” will improve effectiveness and reliability.
Source: “The Six-Principle Framework for Mastering a Business Agile Mindset.” Full report available to Gartner clients.

There are many benefits to business agility, but getting there takes work. A healthy dose of realism, a belief that it’s OK to fail (that is, fail fast, course correct and move on) and an emphasis on collaboration are all keys to success.

Small businesses actually have the advantage when it comes to adopting a business agile mindset. Think of a business as a ship: the larger the ship, the more difficult it is to change direction.

2. Shift to Product Management

What is product management? And how is it different than project management?

  • Projects are initiatives to deliver a specific capability (or valuable business outcome). Project management is the application of knowledge, resources and tools to meet project requirements.
  • Products are a collection of capabilities that deliver value to the business (e.g., internal or external facing technology, applications, software). Product management is an organizational approach for managing products throughout their life cycles, from concept to retirement.
    It means thinking more holistically, or expanding your focus beyond any one project. (See also: product/program portfolio management.)

Do you manage all technology investments as projects? If so, you’re not alone—but you might get left in the dust.

The days of everything in IT being a project are over. Leading-edge organizations are managing much of their previous project portfolios as products.

(Source: Gartner 2017 PPM Predicts.)

This shift is happening fast—by 2020, 40 percent of enterprise organizations will use a product portfolio model, meaning they include both a product and a project component in their portfolios.

And this shift is even happening at non-IT organizations. Adaptive project management methods (e.g., agile and scrum) are becoming more popular, and DevOps and application life cycle management (ALM) are growing.

Both will require product management processes and practices. And you’ll need product managers to lead your transition.

3. Embrace Automation

Artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, our robot overlords—if predictions are true, you’ll embrace all of them in the coming years. But what about today? Here two types of automation you should adopt now:

  • Automated tools: Software that helps teams manage tasks, track progress and collaborate more efficiently. Your project vs. product focus will determine what kind of software you need. Check out our FrontRunners quadrant for a list of leading solutions.
  • Chatbots: Programs that use AI to communicate with users in a way that simulates interaction with a real person. They can be a huge boost to efficiency and can even help reduce operating costs. Check out these three SMB-friendly use cases.

In 2016, nearly 50 percent of the small businesses who contacted Software Advice for help with the software selection process were first-time buyers. In other words, they were trying (and failing) to manage projects without automation.

Most start out using spreadsheets to plan projects and schedule resources. But eventually, the manual, time-consuming data entry process and version control issues drive them to a breaking point. It’s time to ditch spreadsheets and get on board with automated project tools.

There’s a popular study by McKinsey that found employees spend less than 40 percent of their time on role-specific tasks. The majority of their time is spent wading through emails, searching for answers and trying to coordinate with team members.

As a result, the business case for automated tools or chatbots makes itself. Employees can reclaim time lost on mundane, inefficient tasks by having centralized information, easy access to the answers they need and streamlined collaboration.

4. Master Resource Capacity Planning

According to Donna Fitzgerald, president of Nimble PM and former research VP at Gartner, roughly 40 percent of projects are deemed “failures,” and the project success rate has been stuck around 60 percent for years. Fitzgerald ties this rate of failure to issues around poor resource management.

If you don’t have a resource management strategy in place at your SMB (e.g., skills inventory, staffing, forecasting etc.), that should be your first priority. But if you do have a strategy in place, check out Fitzgerald’s tips for mastering capacity planning:

  • Determine the resources, i.e., people, you have to work on projects and list the roles and skills needed to complete each initiative. For example, “senior developer” is a role, while “coding Java” is a skill.
  • Figure out each person’s availability to devote to projects. This helps you determine the number of people you will need to fill each role, i.e., the full-time equivalents (FTEs), needed for each project.
  • Identify bottleneck resources, e.g., the roles and people that define the amount and pace of work moving through the system.
  • Prioritize projects based on perceived value and resource availability. Do not start projects if resources aren’t available.

5. Start Tracking Time—For Real

Project management is most successful when built on reliable estimates, which provide context for the “return” on the investment of resources. But estimates are only reliable when they are based on past performance.

This makes time tracking one of the easiest ways to improve the health of your portfolio and drive your project success rate up. Why? Because what gets measured gets improved. Tracking time means you can use your resources more effectively to plan your portfolio.

 PRO TIP:  Don’t start tracking time for payroll purposes or use “actuals” to rate and rank teams against each other.

Doing so creates an environment of distrust where teams and individuals feel pressured to report data that makes them look good or they think leadership wants to see. When this occurs, the data is useless and the entire time tracking activity becomes a waste of time and money.

Instead, time tracking should be used as a tool to gather real data that allows you to make more informed investment decisions as to the type of projects that will yield the most ROI.

Next Steps

A cross-functional team of executives, stakeholders and technical and project leadership should periodically review your strategic plan and evaluate the success and failure of portfolio initiatives.

Our five-step action plan can help you structure your business strategy to better align your project portfolio with the needs of your business, prioritize high-value projects and drive growth.

So what do you do next? How do you put this action plan into, well, action?

  • Be honest with yourself about where your organization is, and where you want to be.
  • Identify high-priority issues and the objectives you want to achieve.
  • Develop your strategic plan around these high-priority items and align your portfolio to help you achieve these goals.
  • Don’t just blindly go and execute—regularly review your goals and plan to make sure you’re staying focused on the future and not getting lost in the weeds along the way.

And finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Software Advice offers a free service to help you evaluate tools that can help automate your projects and processes so your organization is more efficient. Call today for a free consultation: (855) 998-8505.

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