Lately, there has been a bit of confusion around the initiative vs project topic. There are quite a few different opinions about the relationship between the two terms. Some see them as enemies, other as relatives, third as twins. To make things clear, let`s first set a solid ground for the discussion:
According to the Cambridge Business English dictionary, the definition of Initiative is “a new plan or action to improve something or solve a problem”. The examples give an even better understanding of what initiatives represent: a marketing/cost-cutting initiative, a diplomatic/peace initiative.
On the other hand, a project is defined as “a piece of planned work or an activity which is done over a period of time and intended to achieve a particular purpose”.
This simple semantic comparison gives evidence that initiatives and projects are not to be mistaken for the same thing. They both represent a focused attempt at delivering something. However, in the initiative case, we speak about plan or action, underlining its more strategic nature. With projects, things are far more precise, indicating their rather operational character.
That is why in Kanbanize we do not go the initiative vs project way. We combine them.
Initiative vs Project Should Really Be Initiative and Project
For us, initiatives and projects are strongly linked. There should be no initiative without projects, and also we aim not to have too many projects that are not directly contributing to an initiative. We see initiatives as the bridge between the company mission and everyday operations. They represent the path through which we achieve our targeted performance. Projects are the logical descendants of initiatives as they represent the link between tasks and the more strategic planning level. This is how we go from mission to tasks in three simple steps.
To speak with examples:
We want to set foot in new markets and simultaneously enlarge our market share in our current market. That is why on a strategic level we have defined two main types of initiatives that make sense for us – disruptive and growth. Similar to the examples in the business dictionary, our initiatives sound somewhat broad:
“Increase revenue from different marketing channels” or “Offer an innovative approach to saving resources”.
One more important thing about our approach towards initiatives: we always do results forecasting for future outcomes, based on previous results and set measurable goals, for progress to be trackable and visible. In other words, we combine our initiatives with results that need to be met.
This way we have the direction and the destination we want to reach. We are all set to sail! The next question is how are we going to reach this destination.
For the “how” part, projects come into the game. Defining ways to get where we want to be, we start forming projects for the different departments and in those projects, tasks also start to form.
What we particularly value in the combination of initiatives and projects is the ability to decompose the company’s mission into actionable items and everyday tasks. Doing this, we inevitably witness an overall increase in motivation as each of us knows why we are doing what we are doing and how this is contributing to the big goal.
In short – visualizing initiatives and projects, as well as linking them together is our formula for high-level transparency and alignment on a company level.
Strategic Initiatives as a Component of the Organization’s Vision
By now, it is clear that when we say initiatives, we mean strategic initiatives. Going back to the theory, in the Balanced Scorecard framework, strategic initiatives are the primary method by which strategy is executed.
This is why when defining initiatives in your organization, they must be an integrated component on the path to achieving the company goal. It all has to sound logical and interlinked.
If your strategic initiatives do not fill these requirements, then you probably got them wrong.
A common misconception is to look at strategic initiatives as single silo projects. The reality is, most of the strategic initiatives require cross-functional execution on the project level.
Another thing strategic initiatives are mistaken for is researches and analysis. It is important to integrate data into your strategy, but data alone does not represent strategy. You can have a project dedicated to better understanding the market or your customers, but this project will be a part of an initiative, and it is not an initiative itself.
Although this should not bring the initiative vs project discussion back on the table, there is another difference between the two that should be underlined.
As strategic initiatives are more complex and usually consist of multiple projects, their execution resembles more the principles of portfolio management than those of the project management.
While in project management we speak about direct outputs and deliverables of a single product, in portfolio management and in managing strategic initiatives, the focus is on outcomes and benefits of the wider company goal in place.
One common challenge in the execution is the reporting on strategic initiatives. Having to include more than one project into the report involves doing an aggregated project performance. For this, you first need project reporting with aggregated task performance. A lot of times such reporting tends to be a real time-eater.
To continue with the real-life examples – in Kanbanize we put our strategic initiatives on the Portfolio board. There, the status of each initiative is automatically updated, based on the status of all tasks from the projects linked to the initiative.
This is our way of keeping our eyes on the prize. However you choose to do your reporting, do not underestimate the need for exact numbers. Although we earlier said the focus in strategic initiatives management is more on outcomes than on deliverables, being able to track and analyze their status is crucial for being able to bring initiatives to success.
Without going into too much detail, here is also our approach towards executing projects:
Once the strategic initiative is in place, we see how a particular department can contribute to that and form a project. For planning, we use a timeline where we put these projects and start breaking them down into actionable work items.
Furthermore, to improve work organization, we create multiple workflows on our boards where work activities of different natures can flow through.
As our Kanban boards allow us to visualize the flow of all the individual work items, we can directly see their real-time status and their correlation with the project. Then, on a bigger scale, we are able to align that with the execution of a given, bigger company goal (strategic initiative) as well.
Initiatives and projects in a nutshell
For us, initiatives play a strategic role and represent the bridge between the strategic and operational levels. When defining initiatives in your company, be aware to not have an initiative as an end in itself. Each strategic initiative should be a building block towards achieving the company goals and should be decomposed into projects, representing how exactly this goal will be met.
Through our simple three-step planning “mission-initiatives-projects”, we have achieved a higher level of transparency where each of us knows how his or her tasks are linked to the overall company goals. Naturally, this has led to a better alignment on all levels and departments. So for us, initiative vs project really is initiatives and projects!