Managing Strategic Initiatives



Advances in Project Management Series

By Terry Cooke-Davies, PhD

United Kingdom



It is commonplace to hear the word “Strategy” used in conversations between executives, managers and staff when the topic of an organizations’ intentions, aims and objectives are being discussed. Similarly, organizations’ leaders are prone to launch “initiatives” that are designed to change something about the business, to help implement its “strategy”. Such “strategic initiatives”, therefore, are highly likely to consist of work that can best be viewed as projects, programmes or collections of projects and programmes.

An important study sponsored by the Project Management Institute as a part of its 2013 Thought Leadership series (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2013) reported that during the three years prior to publication, an average of just 56% of strategic initiatives had been successful. The report defined a strategic initiative as, “a project, portfolio of projects, other discrete programme or series of actions undertaken to implement or continue the execution of a strategy, or that is otherwise essential for the successful implementation or execution of a strategy. This includes some—usually high priority—projects, but does not entail the entire project portfolio”.

Given how prominent a role projects and programmes play in such strategic initiatives, and the newspaper headlines that so frequently report on the failure of this or that major programme (especially if paid for out of taxpayers’ funds), then this should come as a surprise to no-one. There is considerable evidence from the field of projects and programmes to suggest that the low success rate is not particularly abnormal. Whether the data comes from the field of information technology projects e.g. (El Emam, 2008), from major infrastructure projects e.g. (Flyvbjerg, 2014) or from major organizational initiatives e.g. (Lovallo & Kahnemann, 2003) all the results point to a higher rate of failure than might be expected, given the importance of projects and programmes.

It isn’t as if the critical success factors for projects and programmes are not well documented – they have been extensively researched since the 1970s and are not controversial. Summaries can be found in many papers such as (Fortune & White, 2006) or (Cooke-Davies, 2004).

The trouble is that, like losing weight or giving up smoking, the principles are easy to grasp, but the behaviour (in this case organizational behaviour) is very hard to change. The more so because transformational change involves large numbers of people needing to do things differently.

Since the 1960s, however, management research and management “gurus” have wrestled with the problem of bringing about transformational change and, in the course of this journey, have learned a lot about why it is so challenging. You could categorize the most important of these lessons into four key areas or “strands of thinking”

  1. The first strand concerns what you could call the “nuts and bolts” of good programme and project management. Being clear about what you need to accomplish, knowing how well you are progressing towards those goals, and having the right means to make course corrections along the way.
  2. The second concerns the people who are impacted in some way by the change…


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in UK and by Routledge worldwide. Information about Routledge project management books can be found here.

About the Author

Terry Cooke-Davies, PhD

United Kingdom


Terry Cooke-Davies
has been a practitioner of both general and project management since the end of the 1960s and a consultant to blue-chip organisations for over twenty years. He was the founder and Executive Chairman of Human Systems International, a global consulting firm which assesses the excellence of organizations’ project, program and portfolio management capability, and operates a leading-edge knowledge management network. With a PhD in Project Management, a bachelor’s degree in Theology, and qualifications in electrical engineering, management accounting and counselling, Terry has worked alongside senior leaders and managers in both the public and the private sectors, to ensure the delivery of business critical change programmes and enhance the quality of leadership. He is co-author with Paul C Dinsmore of ‘The Right Projects, Done Right’, published by Jossey-Bass in October 2005. Terry’s research interests include project success, project management maturity and capability, and the application to project management of insights from the study of complex systems. In October 2006, the Association for Project Management awarded Terry its premier Award, the Sir Monty Finneston Award, for his outstanding contributions to the development of project management as a vehicle for effective change.