27 September 2023

Three crucial elements in a project’s success

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Brian de Haaff* discusses the difference between planning, strategy and strategic planning, maintaining it is much more than a matter of semantics.

Thinking vs. doing: Which is more important? Can you even have one without the other?

It is hard to answer the first question since implementing an idea is what makes it a reality.

Thinking is inherently important, but the second question is much easier.

You can certainly ‘do’ without deep thought beforehand.

It is possible (tempting even) but it is usually ill-advised.

There is comfort in making a plan and completing what is on it.

Setting the real purpose behind the plan is much harder.

Anyone who has worked on developing a project knows the outcome can be unpredictable.

Whether you are launching an entirely new project, or embarking on a major update to an existing one, there are always unexpected hurdles that pop up.

You cannot anticipate every scenario, but you can create a plan for what you will do and how you will get it done, updating it as you go.

I think this is why so many people jump straight to putting a plan together.

Maybe you have a loose set of objectives or some specific goals you know that the organisation wants to hit.

So you create a set of related activities that you believe you can complete with the resources you have available.

Everyone feels good about this plan because it seems reasonable and achievable.

Except, it is a trap.

A plan is not a strategy — strategic planning is not a plan or a strategy, but you need all three for building a project that will bring success to the organisation.

At the start of the year many organisations are deep in strategic planning, setting goals and objectives for the months ahead.

Functional teams put together a list of what they want to get done and what initiatives can support those higher-level efforts.

Budgets are set, plans are built — everyone feels good about what is coming.

However, all that effort is focused inward.

An organisation creates its own goals, sets its own timelines, and manages its own resources.

Looking outward is more vulnerable.

How will your project stand apart from all those that have come before? Will it create value?

That is strategic planning at its core and it can be intimidating to confront those questions.

This is more than semantics.

Understanding the difference between the strategic planning process, strategy, and the plan itself, is essential for all project builders who want to avoid the planning trap and instead build meaningful solutions to real client problems.

Strategic Planning

What will you do differently? Strategic planning is the process of defining your vision for success.

People explore your theory and the logic behind it — what you will need to prove it true.

Leaders identify major efforts and the capabilities that the organisation will need to complete those efforts.

Positioning, goals, initiatives (themes of work), and a high-level roadmap are typical outcomes of strategic planning.


Who are you and how are you unique? Strategy is a set of assumptions and your vision, the synthesis of strategic planning.

It is a belief the entire organisation can embody — bold future-forward thinking centred on your approach to value creation.

You cannot know for sure (which makes strategy a bit daunting for those of us who like to be right) that your theory will prevail.

So as new information is learned, leaders may tweak the strategy as needed.


How and when will you implement your strategy? A plan is an explanation and visualisation of all the above — focused on value creation.

It is a timeline that lays out the schedule for the development team.

Building from that initial strategic roadmap, a comprehensive plan should include goals and initiatives and supporting work items (from specific features to go-to-market activities).

There will likely be more than one plan, though.

Teams often create different visualisations for different audiences and update to reflect progress as it happens.

Grounding yourself in strategy does not guarantee success, but it helps keep you focused on the broader purpose beyond reaching a specific metric.

The leadership team needs to ultimately confirm the specific strategy, but everyone has a role to play in strategic planning.

Project development teams have a special responsibility here — because their work is so vital to the organisation achieving that strategy.

From championing new ideas to choosing what to prioritise going forward, a strategic mindset can help you get out of tactical thinking and make better decisions.

*Brian de Haaff is the Chief Executive of cloud-based software company Aha! He can be contacted on Twitter @bdehaaff.

This article first appeared on the Aha! company website.

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