The 500 Pound Gorilla

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… or how to treat your strategic top priority projects

Many organisations find themselves in a situation where they have THE most important project. A project of high strategic importance and value which has the potential to be THE game changer, a huge milestone towards a new strategic direction. Often these large strategic projects deal with challenges like „developing and establishing an integrated IT system (ERP) across a global organisation“, „develop a new, revolutionary brand“ or „change the core business of an international organisation“. Among project managers, these projects are often called „500 pound“ or „silverback Gorilla“, not as a hint to the weight of the project manager, but as an indication that this project is expected to be treated seriously. If you are in a room with a 500 Pound Gorilla, you should probably listen carefully. 

In our workshops, we regularly have project managers who have been selected to lead such big and impressive projects. To prepare them for their new task, they are sent to a project management workshop. But the key question is: How prepared is the organisation for such a project? 

Interesting enough, in our work with these project managers we often hear similar complaints:

  • Lack of resource availability

The project manager has to go through endless approval cycles to get the resources needed. Often these resources are protected by the „kings and queens“ of the respective departments“. The implication is that the project is only served after the needs of the daily business are ensured.

  • Lack of influence on performance evaluation

The project manager is not involved in the annual performance review of her/his key performers and strongly depends on the good will of team members and their line managers.

  • Lack of communication 

We often hear that the projects are asked to report and communicate from their side. However, often project managers of strategically important projects themselves are not informed by the management team of developments which impact their project. This leads to challenges in the implementation as well as on missed opportunities.

  • Lack of patience and capacities

It is very natural that members of the management team want to see the immediate benefits from a big investment. However, often management doesn’t have enough understanding of the daily operations to have realistic expectations on the amount of work that is required to deliver such a 500 Pound Gorilla.

So, as a result of one or more of the issues described above, they decide to send the project manager to a project management workshop. A place where the project manager gets trained on methods which help to be prepared for such a large project. But again, the key question here is: Is the organisation prepared to take on a 500 pound Gorilla?

In many of the cases described above, we assess the situation upfront and find out that the organisation and its management have limited understanding about the organisational requirements to successfully deliver projects of such a scope and size. Often the root cause for challenges are not found within the project manager but at the organisational level. At CoThink, we call this the strategic project management. Here are a few thought starters in this regards:   

Strategic Project Management 1: Commitment from the Top

Key to an organisation’s ability to deliver change at such a large scale are 

  • common priorities within the management team and 
  • a very well developed project portfolio management. 

By common priorities, we mean that across all functions and departments, management needs to agree on the top priorities for the actual business year. Without such an agreement the results are conflicting priorities at the management, and in consequence also at departmental level. Clear commitment of the entire management team is absolute essential. This sounds very self explanatory but needs commitment in practice. Last month, I had the pleasure to coach a project manager of a 500 Pound Gorilla and went to a staff presentation where the new ERP project had been introduced as „THE most important task of the new year“. The CEO herself has promoted the project as absolutely critical for the companies ability to survive in a highly competitive market. All this sounded GREAT! However, talking to individual members of the management team, our project coach found out that the project was not included in the departmental planning of the heads of those departments which played a vital role in this project. As a result, the project was perceived as an IT task and the departments were asked to support this project (once the own departmental targets were met). Guess what the impact of this set up was for the project manager…

Strategic Project Management 2: Portfolio Management

In 18 years of project management coaching, I rarely came across an organisation which complained that they haven’t had enough projects. Of course, every organisation (profit or not for profit) has limited resources and more work than organisational ability to deliver. This leads to a very big problem, which hits particularly our 500 Pound Gorillas. Successful organisations are aware of their limited capacity and manage a portfolio of projects. The projects are screened and evaluated against priority criteria. 

  • Which of these projects has the highest strategic value for our organisation? 
  • What are their resource requirements? 
  • How many projects can we run at the same time? 
  • Which ones are the projects we should prioritise? 

These are the questions our project coaches are working on in close collaboration with our clients’ management teams. The problem is amazing: In many production companies,
the production manager is perfectly aware of the working force capacity. When a line produces  product A in the morning and switches to product B in the afternoon, the machine have to be stopped. Material has to be changed. Different works flows have to be followed. The time spent to move from product A to product B is called „changeover time“, is monitored carefully and improved where ever possible. When it comes to strategic projects, the same organisation works on the assumption that their project team members and managers can work on an infinitive number or projects at the same time.

Obviously not! The higher the number of projects at the same time, the less effective the delivery of results. The solution lies in a process which allows to prioritise projects and to put this prioritised list of projects into context with the organisation’s capacity. This is an effective tool for the management to decide where a cut makes sense. Once some projects have been delivered and completed capacity is free again to tackle the next projects. A very simple and also a very powerful way to increase the project management productivity significantly.

Strategic Project Management 3: Governance

Strategic projects need three things: commitment, resources and communication. In several cases, our project coaches discovered that management justifiably expected to stay informed and to receive regular updates about the progress of our 500 Pound Gorilla. As written above, what they forget is to keep the project manager informed about latest changes in the strategic environment. Such a lack of communication can easily lead to late adjustments in the direction of the project – leading to an unnecessary waste of resources. A situation similar to sitting in a taxi, deciding to change the destination while the taxi keeps on driving for another 5 kilometres before telling the taxi driver about the decision made. The solution for the prevention of such problems is to set up the right project governance and to have a member of the management team taking the role of a project sponsor with close communication and collaboration with the project manager.  

These are just a few thought-starters related to Strategic Project Management – the organisational side of projects. Our Project Coaches and Consultants help your organisation to asses the organisational capacity and ability to deliver projects. They help to identify and address critical issues and facilitate solutions which match your context. This way, your company will treat the 500 Pound Gorilla with the respect it deserves. Contact us for more information.


Markus Hesse

Markus is the co-founder and managing partner of CoThink Germany. He combines experience as consultant and coach on international projects in a variety of industries for Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies with experience in executive management of international organisations. His core competencies are agile strategies, project management and transformative change programmes. Markus Hesse educational background includes a M.A. in Business Coaching and Change Management. He is author for the EURO-FH university in Hamburg on change management.

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