Published here January 2006.


Musings Index

Project Vision: Yes or No?

Does your project have a vision? A vision that everyone in your team is familiar with, inspired by, and focused on? Should it have?

I suggest that if a project is going to be successful today, creating a vision is a necessity and not a luxury. That's because no project can make serious progress without a clear understanding of where it is going and what it is trying to achieve. It is too easy to start developing the solution before you fully understand the problem!

Alternatively, when the project manager's view of the project's product lacks imagination, even inspiration, the effort becomes dull, bureaucratic and unclear. Though we may be trained in project management stuff, the objective is not to produce project management stuff according to some methodological ritual, but to produce project product stuff that will bring some tangible benefit.

So what is a project vision anyway? Let's start with the definition:

"A project vision is the picturing of the project's deliverable as the solution to the stated need or problem."[1]

In other words a project vision requires a mission that leads to goals, those broad-based things that give the project general direction and purpose. The project goals, in turn, lead to a set of project objectives.

Objectives, you will recall, are those things that should be SMART, i.e. Simple, Measurable, Attainable or Achievable (take your pick), Realistic or Relevant (flip a coin), and Time-bound. It's all rather like a work breakdown structure where the important detail is at the lowest level. If, however, you only pass on the details to the people on your team, these objectives may well not make sense because they don't ultimately hang together under the project's vision.

Where does the project vision come from? Ideally, it should come from the project's sponsor, but doesn't always. Vision means leadership and leadership must come from the project manager. So it is up to the project manager to gain a proper understanding of the sponsor's intent and interpret that into the project vision. Clearly that requires access to all the relevant information. Today's popular word in this respect is "transparency".

In the end, it all adds up to leadership and managing. The impression from current leadership literature seems to suggest that many projects are over-managed and under-led, where "management" has to do with the details of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing. Yet the opposite can also be true - there are many projects where the person in charge over-leads and under-manages. Such projects fail not because of a lack of vision, mission and goals but simply because these leaders are not capable of managing the vision into existence.

It's all very well for the top person on the project to vision, mission and set goals but what use is it if that person cannot get their act together and make it all happen? The fact is that many entrepreneurial, self-driven leaders just hate the routine work that competent management invariably requires. Studies of senior executives have shown that the heads of organizations eagerly absorb new concepts. They are excited by new ideas and produce great plans but dislike the detail, personal attention and patience that are essential to managing the people who must translate these plans into reality.

The reason for this disconnect, either way, is that leading versus managing require two very different types of comfort zones or personality preferences. The visionary is the strategist, "big thinker", who has difficulty dealing with details. Conversely, the manager type has the ability to organize the details but seems less comfortable with "the big picture". We discussed this in some detail in our paper: Project Manager to Project Leader? And the Rocky Road Between ... [2]

Aside from being a fact of life in those projects where the conceptualizers are a separate bunch from the implementers, does that suggest that the split between leadership and managership should be institutionalized? That's an open question because people perform best within their comfort zone and you have to go with the people you have. But if the problem is a question of attitude, it could just be that "leaders" lack the necessary training in management skills, while managers lack the necessary training in leadership skills.

For the project manager, the greatest vision, mission and plan mean nothing until they get implemented so the two are inextricably intertwined. Perhaps your project does have a vision, but it has somehow got lost in the day-to-day turmoil of the project effort. True, everyone has some idea of where they are going and what they are trying to achieve, but is the vision outdated, too shortsighted or even too long term? When people have different visions, disputes are likely to arise or even engender counterproductive work.

So it's a good idea from time to time to take a brief time out from the hurly burly of daily work to update and rebuild the project vision. It gives everyone a renewed sense of direction, renewed energy and cohesiveness. People put their effort into the most important and most immediate activities. It unites disparate elements, even warring factions. As a project manager, it is your own competitive edge.

And while you are at it, you might make this your opportunity to revisit the project's major risks list, and the issues list that show items standing in the way of progress. That will let people know that you really mean business. However, neither of these has meaning without reestablishing the vision. You'll probably get lots of conflicting ideas, but that's part of the process of getting back in focus.

Bottom line

Vision, mission, planning, doing and wrapping up are all essential to a successful project. If you are a visionary and planning type project manager, then hone your skills at managing people and rolling up your sleeves and getting things done by example. A little gentle, relentless pressure will not hurt either.

If, however, you are a get-it-done type project manager, and you are looking to field a really successful project, the first step is to get your team fired up with a clear and compelling project vision and a really workable plan.

Perhaps the real solution for project-oriented organizations faced with this dilemma is to build effective practices, procedures and attitudes into the organization's culture. This way executive management can rely on the strength of their project management environment to deliver their projects to expectations rather than relying solely on the strengths, or weaknesses, of the personalities of their project leaders and managers.

1. Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms [D03394]
2. Verma, V.K., & R.M. Wideman, 2000
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