So you’re running multiple projects - congratulations!  It is always a good sign of a healthy organisation when there is significant, ongoing investment in change. Of course simply setting up projects to deliver a change agenda does not automatically result in quality and there is quite a bit more to ensuring there is a return on the investment and outcomes are achieved.  

Project success starts with good project management practices of course not to mention a good team and a dose of luck.  But how do you ensure they are aligned? Especially when alignment requirements come in many forms; alignment to your overarching strategy, aligned to stakeholder expectation, aligned to mandated processes or policy, or being aligned to deliver the right things, at the right time, in the right way.  

A good way to think of this is the leadership metaphor of being on the dance-floor where your perspective is limited to what you can see around you.  The more crowded the dance floor (with your projects) the less perspective you will have and there will certainly be no way of telling if you have alignment or not.  As a result, as issues start to appear, perhaps flagged by each project, you will struggle to derive any insights into common causes.

So let’s look at the most common alignment issues and how you can solve them.

Getting on the balcony

Perhaps the most common issue faced by organisations struggling to align projects properly is the lack of a Portfolio Project Management Framework.  A portfolio creates the balcony to give the overview of all that is happening on your projects as well as external factors that could cause trouble.  It does take some doing to convince an organisation that a portfolio is required given it will come with a demand for resources to manage and govern it.  Equally it takes a bit of hard work to set up your framework and make it effective.  

Build your business case to establish (if you don’t have one) or uplift your PMO to include a Portfolio Management function.  Within this business case make sure you include critical processes such as demand management to filter new ideas for projects and, most importantly, prioritise projects based on alignment to strategy. It is most certainly best if you can utilise PPM applications and tools that can automate certain tasks and support real time insights for decision making.  Once you have a good PPM framework and tools, you’ll wonder how you ever went without them and while alignment issues won’t entirely go away, you’ll identify them early for proactive resolution.

But ‘mind the gap’

The risk with running Portfolio processes in parallel to your project processes is that planning only gets done once based on a business cycle or at the beginning of the project lifecycle.  Where this occurs, alignment of projects can only be assured to be  aligned as of a point in time.  Of course, as time goes by, the projects will zig, or zag and drift away for the original intent which could result in misalignment from the strategy and erosion of value in delivery.  This can happen if ‘top down’ strategic planning in an organisation is not integrated properly with project planning, which is typically a bottom up estimation approach.

Common components in a 'top down' versus 'bottom up' approach
Common components in a 'top down' versus 'bottom up' approach

The best way to keep these processes aligned is to ensure your project planning processes are adaptive and reoccur on a regular basis rather than just as a one off. Irrespective of whether you are running a waterfall or an agile methodology, you will have the ability to reset your compass and align your project back against your organisational ‘north star’.

The iterative or incremental planning processes will align different parts of your project such as allowing your schedule to be adapted to the latest risk profile or to capitalise on new opportunities.  Perhaps more importantly, the process should be used to establish alignment across the project teams and stakeholders, giving them a common understanding of what, when and how the project will be delivered. It is critical that there is clear alignment on what success looks like for the project to set and manage stakeholder expectation.

It's all about perspective

I'm sure you’ve heard of the blind men and the elephant, where 6 blind men are using touch to identify what it is they are experiencing.  Given each man has a different part of the elephant their experiences are subjective and therefore differ from each other - to the man with the tail “it’s a rope” to the man with the leg “it's a tree” and so on.

Image courtesy of planet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s a parable used to describe different perspectives that can be significantly different based on a subjective view and I find it very relevant to projects. Misaligned points of view are especially common with senior stakeholders who only have time to absorb small pieces of information at random intervals. Removing the subjectivity and aligning your stakeholders to one point of view is key and the simplest way to do that is to establish your PPM framework and use standardised data to provide regular and real time insights.  This will ultimately control the context of your project information.  What can help even more is to invite everyone into your iterative planning process and use real time collaboration to reduce the gap in understanding.

Alignment trouble will exist and is a common risk in a multi-project environment but luckily there are many ways to mitigate the challenges that can be faced.  As a final word, despite the ‘elephant’ parable's message,  I won’t be offended if you all took something different away from this article as long as it can help in any way.