Strategic Planning and Project Management:
The Key to Successful Implementation

by Herb Rubenstein and Bruce McGraw


The field of strategic planning is undergoing an identity crisis. The Strategic Leadership Forum, the industry's leading international professional association, has now been out of existence for several years. The School of Management Science at George Washington University taught a course in strategic planning in 2004 for the first time in several years. Strategic planning consultants are looking down a double barreled shotgun: one barrel shows decreasing demand for their services; the other barrel shows their rates plummeting.

One major reason for this decline in the strategic planning profession is that the frenetic pace of businesses and non-profit organizations has rendered the often slow and cumbersome strategic planning process irrelevant, if not obsolete. Just scan the literature for book titles like "Thriving on Chaos" and "Managing at the Speed of Change," to catch a glimpse of how quick the internet, information technology and quarter by quarter demands have quickened the pace of life in what was already called "the fast lane."

A second reason for the downward spiral of the field is too many strategic plans cost a lot of money and merely collect dust. Everyone in the industry agrees that the purpose of a strategic plan is to guide an organization intelligently into the future. This article provides a clear rationale explaining why strategic plans so often become dust catchers and provides a solution to one of the major problems in the field of strategic planning.

The Disconnect

There is no shortage of strategic planning books or strategy "gurus." The authors of this article have a bibliography of over 100 recently published books in the field that we will gladly share with our readers. A few books actually use the word "implementation" in their titles. These books are beginning to pave the way toward reforming the field of strategic planning. The current disconnect in the strategic planning industry is the failure of strategic planners to develop plans with the help of project management professionals, so that the strategic plan can be easily transformed into a functional plan to guide an organization in the future.

However, in spite of this new wave of books, and the abundance of thick strategic plans collecting dust in the American business and non-profit landscape, this issue of linking strategic planning and project management/implementation is still not "topic A" at meetings of strategic planners or project managers. This disconnect between the development of a strategic plan and implementation of project plans, results in huge cost overruns, delays in implementation, chaos in the workplace, low worker morale and most often results in organizations being unable to create their future consistent with the nice picture painted in the strategic plan. The failure to build a bridge between the strategic planning process and project management's implementation processes is a major reason most strategic plans don't work.

Strategic planners have figured out how to take into account all views of the various stakeholders, how to include financial projections for each activity, how to set proper goals and objectives and even set timelines, milestones and target dates. However, the reason strategic plans are not "functional" is they are created by a person or team who is neither a knowledgeable, certified nor experienced project manager. The failure to get a person on the strategic planning team who understands the reality of managing complex projects is one of the major causes of the growing irrelevance of the "strategic planning" industry.

Suggesting that the strategic planning process be infused with project managers and their processes seems like we are suggesting that the strategic planners who live at 30,000 feet and the project management professionals who work in the trenches, begin to fly together, presumably, at the same altitude. We are! More to the point, we are suggesting that the wall between "strategic planning" and "project management" come down like the Berlin Wall. After the wall fell, there were still "East" and "West" Germans; but they had much greater opportunities to collaborate and share their expertise and cultures with the other to the betterment of their unified country.

Strategic Management

Many authors have used the term "strategic management" to mean many different things We choose this term as a catch all phrase that brings together the strategic planning process and the project management process whether they these two co-existing groups are at GE, DARPA or Harvard University. We know that the best CEOs fly at both 30,000 feet and at ground level simultaneously. They create vision, strategy, and they demand and achieve successful implementation. When they do their job best, they are both a strategic planner and a project manager at the same time.

The brilliance of Frank Lloyd Wright was that he was not only an immensely creative designer and architect, he was also a skilled electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, and materials/physics expert. The students he trained at Taliesin and Taliesin West had to go out and get the rocks and other natural materials they would use in their building projects. They would do their own electrical wiring. They would learn the goals, traits and character of the people and organizations for whom they were designing buildings. By developing the architectural plan, they were strategic planners. By developing the specifications for the materials, the furniture, the uses of the space, the budgets, the lighting, and creating the relationships of the building with the physical environment and its users, Wright and his students were project management professionals.

Next Steps for the Strategic Planners and PMs

Integrating the strategic planning process and the project management planning process can be accomplished whether you are planning a blood drive or a new enterprise wide financial system for a large company or non-profit. The professionals we now call "systems integrators" do not meet this need since they often only technologically oriented and often come into the picture after the strategic plan is written and just before IT implementation.

The project management industry must flex its growing muscle to get into and become effective at the strategic planning stage. CEOs and strategic planning professionals may initially resist this idea because they will continue to think of the strategic planning stage as being "earlier" and flying at a higher altitude than the project management stage. As more and more project managers successfully become involved earlier and earlier in the strategic planning process, strategic plans will become more relevant, operational, realistic and successful.


The worlds of strategic planning and project management can combine to produce strategic plans that guide organizations rather than collect dust. Project managers will need to develop the political skills necessary to succeed as an intruder in the unfamiliar territory of strategic planning. Strategic planners must convince themselves and senior management of the need to add professional project management members to the strategic planning team. New presentation formats will have to be created so strategic plans will include all of the relevant information that project plans should include: analysis, goals, objectives, implementation guidelines, tasks, budgets, and personnel assignments. This will make the strategic plan readable, understandable, credible and actionable.

This new format for a strategic plan must also incorporate the knowledge that attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Future strategic plans may consist of PowerPoint slides, Visio drawings, spreadsheets or other new graphical/text combinations that integrate project management templates with strategic planning templates. The goal must be to make strategic plans implementable, not just readable. Project management professionals working with strategic planners can go a long way to making this a reality.

Herb Rubenstein, Candidate for Congress, 7th Congressional District - Colorado, is an attorney and the CEO of Growth Strategies, Inc., a leadership and management consulting firm. He is co-author of Breakthrough, Inc. - High Growth Strategies for Entrepreneurial Organizations (Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 1999). He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Strategic Planning and Leadership at George Washington University, is a founding director of the Association of Professional Futurists, and is the author of numerous articles on futures studies, leadership and strategic planning. Visit for additional information, e-mail: or telephone (301) 718-4200 in Bethesda, Maryland or (202) 236-7626 in Washington, D.C.

Bruce McGraw is senior program manager and Vice President for Cognitive Technologies, and specializes in managing large project teams. He is an author and speaker for many topics on management, projects, and technology. He is also known for this work in managing virtual teams. Bruce can be reached in Atlanta, Georgia by email: or phone: 770-977-5204.

Many more articles in Strategic Planning in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Herb Rubenstein and Bruce McGraw. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading