Save that Big Project with a Compelling Strategic Story

With every complex project or initiative comes a seemingly endless set of moving parts. Your company’s Project Management Office forms multiple workstreams. Mobilizes resources. Drives project tasks, schedules, budgets, and teams.

Things are humming along.

Until they aren’t.

Focus begins to stray. Workgroups move out of sync. Decisions conflict. Teams miss key milestones. And everyone’s trying to figure out what went wrong.

The project isn’t always the problem

At this point, most organizations rethink their project management capabilities. Do we bring on a new crackerjack taskmaster to lead the effort? Maybe we should restructure the work or consider a more sophisticated project management system.

Perhaps. Being able to skillfully deconstruct, plot out, and manage the many interdependent activities of a project is vital.

But often, there’s something far more human at play when a project starts to go south: the people involved aren’t connected to the larger meaning of the effort or the significance of their own contributions.

When teams don’t understand the project’s overall aim or the rationale for their piece of the action, they can easily lose their enthusiasm and their way. They are left thinking: Wait, tell me again, why are we doing this?

The project’s strategic story sets the stage for success

Holding things together over a project’s long, dynamic life requires that people know more than the tactics, tasks, and milestone dates. Employees need context to make smart choices, stay in lockstep with others, and confidently navigate the obstacles that inevitably come their way.

When you’re nose to the grindstone on an initiative, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and forget to articulate the larger, guiding story about the project. Still, taking the time to clarify that strategic story sets the stage for aligned activity, efficiency, and thoughtful troubleshooting.

5 elements of a project’s strategic story

The strategic story transcends the project hows, whats, and whens to get to the whys. Start by clarifying these five items:

  1. Pain points. Identify the problems or opportunities that the initiative or change addresses. Is it about easing budget, regulatory, or competitor pressures for your customers? Addressing a hassle that distracts employees from more important matters? Be sure to put yourself in the shoes of those benefitting, whether they are customers, employees or someone else.
  2. Pinpoint how the project fits in with the organization’s strategy, guiding principles, or mission. If you can’t find a connection, leadership has a pivotal question to ask and answer: Should we be doing this at all?
  3. Uncover why this effort is essential now. Far too many companies resort to “it’s the right thing to do.” But if it’s the right thing to do, why didn’t you do it a year ago? Get to what’s evolving in the environment, in customers’ lives, or in the business that prompts you to take on this endeavor at this point in time.
  4. Clarify what will happen if you don’t do this. Will customers or employees get fed up? Perhaps a competitor will leapfrog you, or you’ll no longer be considered for certain kinds of contracts.
  5. Define desired outcomes. Paint a picture of how customers, employees, or the business will be better off when all is said and done.

Now that you’ve got a handle on the elements of your project’s strategic story, it’s time to capture it and spread it across the organization.

That’s where the message platform comes in.

A message platform pulls the story together

A message platform is an excellent tool for articulating your project’s strategic story and then keeping it in front of leaders and employees. It’s a concise, laser-focused document establishing the high-level messages that set context for project workstreams, tasks, and calendars.

While project details are essential to convey to specific audiences, the project message platform helps elevate the message, prompting people to look up and out to the horizon—and step out of the weeds.

The message platform serves as the foundation for all project communications. Consistently reinforcing the messages contained in it means that everyone across the organization gains a shared understanding of the initiative’s purpose. The message platform becomes the North Star that aligns teams and activity, enables decision-making, and helps individuals make sense of their role in the grand scheme of things.

With message platform in hand, here are some other ways to make your project communications work harder and better:

  • Establish a single source of truth. Partner with your Project Management Office to establish and publicize the go-to source for the most current, on-demand information relevant to the project as well as messaging and other communication tools.
  • Strike a steady beat. Establish a regular cadence for project updates to create a level of predictability and reliability that eases employee anxiety and suppresses rumor.
  • Ensure your communication efforts include plenty of avenues for soliciting and responding to feedback from leaders and employees. Encourage candor about what they understand, their beliefs, and their needs. There’s no reason to assume when you can simply ask.

A context-rich message platform gives broader meaning to project tasks and details. It guides decisions and accelerates activity. The strategic story becomes clear, and everyone unites around a shared purpose and direction.

Margie McCarthy is founder of McCarthy Messaging, a strategic messaging firm based in Denver, Colorado. She’s fond of messy challenges, brave clients and vintage jewelry.

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