Strategic Thinking and The future of Project Management: A Conversation With Greg Githens


Greg Githens is on nearly everyone’s list of top project management thought leaders.

Greg is the author of a new book, “How to Think Strategically. Sharpen Your Mind. Develop Your Competency. Contribute to Success.” The book offers a ton of pragmatic approaches, great examples, and sound theory for learning this valuable and rare competency.

We recently caught up with Greg to learn a little more about strategic thinking and its application in project and program management.

TaskQue: First, how did you begin your career?

Greg Githens: I was lucky to be hired by a fast-growing project-based company where I was exposed to every facet of effective project management.

When I was promoted to a program manager position, I gained exposure to the strategic thinking of the CEO and other top executives.

There is a direct line of narrative from my project and program experience to my new book, How to Think Strategically. My mission is to help people understand what it means to be strategic and help them design better strategy and implement it brilliantly.

TaskQue: Why should program and project managers upskill in strategic thinking?

Greg Githens: There are several reasons.

One is that the program and project managers need to connect their tactical decisions to strategic decisions. That means that they need to recognize what makes for a strategic decision and how tactical decisions adapt to those more-strategic decisions.

Another reason is that contemporary project portfolio management practices are lagging the state of the art in strategy. As people learn to distinguish good strategy from bad, they will be able to better policies selecting the right projects.

Strategic thinkers are valuable for the sustainable success of any organization. To think strategically is to develop and operate from a broad-framed understanding of the issues affecting all parts of the organization.

Another reason is that history shows the disruption of orthodox, well-entrenched business models. Strategic thinkers watch for emerging signs of discontinuities and look beyond the urgency of short-term goals and objectives.

Finally, having a personal brand as a competent strategic thinker is good for one’s career. Competent strategic thinkers are more promotable and attractive to employers.

TaskQue: Thinkers360 has placed you on its leaderboard for the top 20 global thought leaders and influencers for agile. Give us a few interesting ideas.

Greg Githens: Although agile is a buzzword, it contains a collection of potentially powerful ideas for achieving success.

I like to note that the word agile unpacks into three basic ideas: fast, flexible, and leanness.

You can design an organization to be very flexible. However, optimizing for high-flexibility means accepting tradeoffs for speed, leanness and efficiency.

Similarly, you could design an organization to be highly productive, but you will probably have to accept sacrifices in flexibility.

The key point is that agility is a means to an end. Good strategy comes first and guides the specifics design of the agile organization.

The agile workforce is gaining attention in the human resources space. Increasingly, organizations are establishing strategic thinking as a recruiting criterion, with the idea that strategic thinkers are more agile.

TaskQue: TaskQue is a productivity enhancement tool which helps in task management and better efficiency and transparency. Why is productivity strategically important?

Greg Githens: Software-enabled productivity tools continue to bring many benefits to the operations of organizations.

Obviously, productivity and efficiency are important. For example, an organization that produces commodities needs to apply methods to achieve a low-cost production capability. A software-enabled productivity tool can allow an individual to produce more output for a given level of input.

Similarly, a fast-growing business that is trying to capture market share wants the opportunity as quickly as it can. If customers are loyal, the organization gains a source of enduring advantage.

Productivity tools have allowed people to sidestep the routine activities and invest their talents in kinds of work that humans do incredibly well: collaborate in collective sense-making, designing elegant and unique solutions, and create effective design implementations.

In other words, software-enabled productivity tools can free up time for individual strategic thinking.

TaskQue: The world is changing and affecting the practice of program and project management. What does the future hold? What about artificial intelligence?

Greg Githens: A strategic thinker recognizes that emergence — the fundamental characteristic of a complex system — is a game-changer. Historical examples of emergence include wars, the rise of the internet, financial crises, the rise of social media, and epidemics.

The future will certainly hold elements that are prevalent in today’s world. That would include the appreciation of people’s unique talents and the skillful blending of them into teams.

The future will probably include utopian elements. The proper use of software-enabled processes will off-load many routine scheduling and resource management tasks. In this case, artificial intelligence may have great positive impact on the work of project managers, freeing them to focus their energies on creativity and design.

But the future will also include dystopian elements. People who can’t learn quickly and adapt may be foreclosed from high-paying careers or find their options severely limited. In this case, artificial intelligence may have a negative effect on society.

I encourage people to be open to the unexpected and skeptical of any specific prediction.

TaskQue: What can project managers do to become more proactive?

To be proactive is to have a functional, forward view of likely situations.

The only way that the future exists in the present is in our imagination, our anticipation. Each of us increases our strategic thinking when we identify and test our anticipatory assumptions.

Proactive people are more aware of their anticipatory assumptions across a broad range of possible futures.

They also consider their responses. Just like with risk response planning, you might want to avoid a situation or exploit the opportunity. You might want to mitigate its adverse effects or enhance those effects.

TaskQue: Who is someone who inspires your strategic thinking.

This quotation from Norbert Wiener sets out the challenge for every individual and organization. We need more strategic thinkers,

“The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”

Key learnings:

  • Understand how your tactical decisions connect to strategic decisions
  • Don’t assume the future is predictable
  • Agile unpacks to fast, flexible, and lean-ness.