Why Initiatives (projects) are the Secret Ingredient to a successful business6 min read

You have a Vision in your organisation which has identified a stack of things to do.  These are called Initiatives and they need some attention.  Planning, budgeting, resourcing and scheduling now need to be considered – so what are Initiatives and what is portfolio management?

What are Initiatives?

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ― Andy Warhol

It’s probably easier to start with what ‘initiative’ we aren’t talking about in this business function. 

Firstly, there is the dictionary definition of “the ability to assess and initiate things independently” as in the phrase ‘use your initiative’.  Although useful to have people who show initiative in your organisation, it’s not the subject of this function article.

Instead, the definition of “an act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation” is what we are talking about. As an example,  the Government may launch a new initiative against car crime.  Alternatively, a company may have an initiative to introduce a new product to the market.  Yet further, a team could introduce an initiative to become healthier in themselves.

Initiatives in business are a way of defining a priority. The Initiatives you set in your organisation should normally be in relation to your Vision

So the Initiative function manages the translation of the strategic direction of the organisation into reality.

Why not call it Projects?

Simply, every Project is an Initiative in business.  However, every Initiative is not a Project.  Project Management is a technique which can be applied to one or more initiatives to help manage the complexity.  Many, if not most, Initiatives are small and easily managed within the organisation without kicking-off a project.  However, Initiatives do need to be controlled.

Project, Programme and Portfolio management, also known as P3, are all be techniques that organisations could use to control larger collections of Initiatives.  However, whether a sole trader or a multi-national public limited company, Initiatives are the common denominator.

The Initiatives function should be used be all growing and improving organisations.  Even the micro business will benefit from keeping better control of what and how they are changing.  It could, alternatively, be called Portfolio.

Initiatives and Projects, Programmes and Portfolios

It’s worth spending a little time clarifying how projects, programmes and portfolios fit in with initiatives and each other.

Portfolio, Programme, Initiative, Project venn diagram

The venn diagram to the left attempts to simply explain the relationship between Initiatives, projects, programmes and portfolios.  It’s not 100% the case, but should help to demonstrate how these things relate.

Every (hopefully) organisation has a ‘portfolio’ of Initiatives, even if it’s a rough task list.  A portfolio is a collection of all the things you are seeking to do to improve the business.  

Sometimes an Initiative is complex, requiring a large amount of resources or a lot of coordination to achieve it.  So you may use Project Management techniques to add more control to getting it done.

If you have many projects and Initiatives along a similar theme, or that need to work together to achieve the organisation’s Vision, then you may setup a programme to make sure everything is working to that common aim effectively.

In a larger organisation there may be multiple programmes, each with their own projects and initiatives.  These programmes may have people dedicated to teams focused only on delivering the Vision.  There will also be Initiatives which are stand-alone and managed as part of the day-to-day operations.  Regardless of how they are managed they are all Initiatives and all part of. the organisations portfolio.

Common Activities

The activities used in managing a portfolio of Initiatives will change with size and complexity of the organisation:

  • Identification and understanding
  • Categorisation and grouping
  • Prioritisation and balancing
  • Planning and scheduling
  • Benefits Management
  • Financial Management
  • Risk management
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Governance and control
  • Resource Management

Primary Acts and Regulations

Aside from legislation to control Nationally Significant Infrastructure projects, there are no Acts or Regulations specifically controlling this business function.

Available Standards

As with many business functions, there are a number of general standards which could be applied to Initiatives, such as ISO 9001 Quality Management.  There is, unfortunately, a bewildering array of methodologies, techniques and standards.  Here are the most prominent standards and frameworks in Project, Programme and Portfolio Management:

Authoritative Guidance

Sources of good support and guidance are not as prevalent as the number of methods available:

Valuable Skills

The skills required by those involved in managing Initiatives can be broken down into 3 areas:

Individual Skills

  • Analytical – Analysing problems and challenges with perceptiveness, insight developing innovative thinking.
  • Communication – Making use of various technologies to best advantage and spotting the possibilities in emerging technologies.
  • Quantitative – Working with statistics, metrics and other data to interpret and predictive good courses of action.
  • Negotiation – Using sound arguments, good evidence and persuasion to find resolutions to any contended issues

Team Skills

  • Planning – Planning, delivering and controlling Initiatives
  • Decision-making – Making decisions in a timely and well-informed manner
  • Time Management – Organising self and others to make best use of the time and resources available to achieve the agreed plan

Organisational Skills

  • Leadership – Build and lead successful teams whilst demonstrating competence in methods, standards, planning, collaboration, process and procedural design, using feedback, and managing conflict.
  • Professionalism – Acting with honesty, integrity, self-confidence and consistency. 
  • Relationship management – Building a useful and productive working relationships with stakeholders and resources.
  • Influencing – Discovering solutions that balance the interests of all parties and communicating persuasively 

Service Providers

Normally, organisations tend to grow into running Initiatives naturally.  However, there is a point where capacity and capability may warrant bringing in additional resources or support.   As Initiatives tend to be transitory it may be sensible to consider contracting resources for the period required. 

Project Managers and Programme Managers are usually readily available.  Day rates for these resources can vary dramatically depending on the type of initiative, experience and region.  If you are considering employing someone in this type of role, it’s good not to leave it too late as there are many benefits from having managers in as early as possible, even if that is part-time.

There are a range of task and project management tools available now.  It would depend on the method you have chosen and your technical capabilities as to which will be best for your organisation.

Conclusion

Initiatives are something every organisation will do in one way or another.  However, one looking to grow and improve will need to focus on managing Initiatives efficiently to avoid them running over budget or taking too long complete.

Developing skills to deal with your Initiatives is always useful, but do not shy away from calling for advice, guidance and support when your plans become a little more complex.

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