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An Interview with Professor Sebastian Green on Strategic Project Management

By Sebastian Green 05 Jul 2024
An Interview with Professor Sebastian Green on Strategic Project Management

In this interview, Sebastian Green, Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at UCC, looks back at the emergence of project management in Ireland over the last twenty years and discusses how important it is to execute strategy for organisations.    

He reminds us of Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter's statement:   

Sebastian believes that the way to deliver this unique mix of value to the organisation is strategic project management: the management of projects in such a way as to develop competencies and capabilities which contribute to the firm's sustainable competitive advantage. Such competencies and capabilities reside less in knowledge of the formal protocols and processes of project management and more in what is often termed the soft side of project management. Of particular importance here is leadership and its role in creating boundary-spanning knowledge, which is essential for a competitive edge.    

Q. How did you become a Professor of Management and Marketing at UCC?    

As an economist, I started my academic life, moved to anthropology, and then began to apply this to strategic management.  I was one of the first Research Fellows in Strategy at the London Business School. I was hired to analyse organisations as business cultures, which led me to implement strategic change and develop leaders who can drive strategic thinking throughout their companies. I left LBS and then went to Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where I lectured on Strategic Management and Leadership. I joined UCC in 1990 to re-launch its MBA program and develop its Department of Management and Marketing.

Q. How did the Project Management (PM) discipline emerge on your radar?   

In 1993, a colleague, Dr Donncha Kavanagh, introduced me to Ed Naughton. Their passion for Project Management and their commitment to how it would enhance business performance was contagious. Accordingly, we looked at how collaboration between UCC and the Institute of Project Management might best leverage their unique competencies to amplify and deepen the rollout of project management in Ireland.  We hoped our competence in the academic disciplines of Management and Strategic Management would complement the Institute's practical experience in the fundamental disciplines of Project Management. The ensuing joint venture between UCC and the Institute of Project Management created an innovative approach to PM. We can now see that this collaboration put us ahead of the posse in terms of PM education, training, and development and was a forerunner of developments that have taken place elsewhere in the wider PM field, both here and abroad.  

Q. How has the Institute contributed to developing management skills in Ireland?   

The Institute has made an immense contribution to PM education, training and development in Ireland. It has brought over 40,000 people through its doors and helped them progress career-wise while making high-added value contributions to their organisations in both the private and the public sectors. It has helped PMs aspire to take on significant management roles, not just in the traditional PM homeland of manufacturing, construction, and IT but across all business functions and sectors. Having project management skills in a company is no longer a luxury. It is essential, and more and more aspects of management can and are benefitting from the application of PM protocols and learning. This is true even at the highest levels within organisations where project management is part and parcel of effective strategic management. How can you even begin to think about achieving sustainable competitive advantage, the raison d'etre of strategy, unless you have the leading-edge project management skills and competencies that are its lifeblood?  

Q. Has Project Management become a strategically important resource and dynamic capability for organisations?    

Michael Porter reminds us that "Strategy is about setting yourself apart from the competition. It's not a matter of (just) being better at what you do - it's a matter of being different at what you do". Of course, poor project management can derail strategy. However, good project management, which supports strategy, begs the question of what is good and in what way.      

Arguably, the technical aspects of project management and the explicit knowledge of PM are not the key drivers of strategic success. This is because such knowledge is not secret and is open to everyone. And if everyone has this knowledge, it cannot give a competitive edge. However, there is a different type of knowledge, know-how or wisdom, which is often referred to as tacit knowledge, which is held to be the critical driver of superior performance. Tacit knowledge is gained through lived experience and expressed through personal beliefs and values. It forms the basis and is a prerequisite of sound judgement, good working relationships, authentic corporate culture, and leadership ability, which are necessary to fulfil the essential purpose (the primary task) of any organisation. This type of knowledge is much harder to pin down and emulate, which is why it is the essence of the route to sustainable competitive advantage.     

So when project management, in addition to strict adherence to widely accepted best practice protocols:   

  • Addresses the cultural, political and social aspects of management over the rational, analytical side of project management,   
  • Builds and leverages the tacit knowledge essential for good management and leadership,   
  • Fosters the development and recognition of star project management qualities and experiences such as dedication, forcefulness, organisational savvy, relationship management, and political and cultural skills   
  • Supports the primary task of the organisation   

Then, it can become a dynamic capability that is a key driver of strategic success.      

These were the founding principles behind the development of the Institute's Strategic Project Management Diploma. That is why I believe this is a unique programme that will help develop the next generation of Project Managers and reinvent them as a Strategic project leader.   

Q. How does project management contribute to achieving strategic success?  

To really understand what PMs can do to support strategy formulation and implementation that leads to wins in the marketplace, we need to appreciate that there are at least four different levels of strategy education in top business schools. Very briefly, they are as follows:    

Strategy 1 – Business Strategy  

Competitor analysis, generic strategies, value chain analysis, industry analysis, core competencies and Dynamic Resources   

Strategy 2 – Corporate Strategy  

Diversification, M&A, Portfolio Analysis, Scenario Planning, Blue Ocean Strategy, and Multiple Horizons.    

Strategy 3 – Strategy Implementation 

Corporate Culture, Corporate Politics, the 7Ss, Business Process Reengineering, Continuous Improvement and Change.    

Strategy 4 – Leadership Development

Leadership and Followership, Group Dynamics, Knowledge: Positive and Negative Capability, OD, Personal Development, and the integration of all four levels.    

Project management feeds into each of these levels, but typically, the PM discipline construes the strategic space far too limitedly. A prime example is saying PMs only implement strategy, whereas a critical tenet of strategic management is that strategy emerges from what you do. And in this emergence, as Deming said: "The only true source of competitive advantage is tacit knowledge." And as argued above, PM is the very space where that knowledge is created".    

Also, an important movement in leadership development at top business schools is to protect managers from the pitfalls of bad leadership and to recognise the primacy of leader-follower relations. In so doing, an understanding of what makes for good group dynamics and how to avoid dysfunctional dynamics that frustrate organisational and project outcomes comes to the fore.  Rather than focusing on an idealised list of leadership traits or styles that are hard to imitate, there has been a move towards recognising the value of authentic leadership, which addresses how one's own personal experience, warts and all, may just what is required to contribute to organisation's success. 

This is a far cry from the message in so many leadership manuals that prescribe the seven or 700 things brilliant leaders do! If it were that simple, we would have brilliant leaders everywhere. PM is essentially an experiential journey that ought to build judgement, insight, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution and relationship management skills. When these are combined with excellent technical skills, the likelihood of project success is greatly enhanced organisationally. I suppose that is why I pushed long and hard to get a Project Leadership Diploma, which delves deep into Leadership, Followership and Group Dynamics.  

Q. How can Project Management and the Institute support the career growth of young professionals? 

Managers can no longer do without project management skills and knowledge. Project leadership requires the bringing together of, on the one hand, the rational, analytical side of management, with, on the other, the general management skills and understanding of group dynamics, which are essential for effective leader/follower relations. PMs have first-hand experience in managing across the silos and the divided loyalties that bedevil collective action in support of a shared goal. Yet, because PM is often construed by senior managers as a technical rather than behavioural, political, and social competence, there has always been a glass ceiling over PM careers.