2020 Hindsight

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I was running late, something that has always made me deeply embarrassed. Being late because I was lost, only made it worse.

The original buildings on the Microsoft campus in Redmond were designed in an X shape. The better to live up the promise that virtually everyone would have an office with a door, and almost all with a window. Nestled into the woods, they resulted in a campus that had a forested, peaceful feel. But those buildings weren’t very space efficient. So the brilliant architects of the second generation buildings simply doubled that shape, a pair of Xes. 

The designers were no doubt proud of the glorious symmetry, at least on paper. The result in real life, however, was a maze of indistinguishable halls and right angles to nowhere. It didn’t help that the office numbering scheme seemed random. They had also carried the symmetry just a little too far when it came to the facilities. On one wing all the men’s rooms were on the right, the women’s on the left. On the opposite wing this was reversed. I had waltzed in to be greeted by a tampon machine more than once. I’m sure many women had been equally surprised by a urinal.

Alas I was lost, and when I finally found his office, he wasn’t so much angry as just visibly downtrodden. I’m not sure if his demeanor was because of my tardiness, though. It may well have been due to my being there at all. He had led the project I discussed in Episode Two. The project that had been summarily cancelled in the middle of a disastrous review with Bill Gates. My visit was a follow up at the request of Mike Maples, head of the products division, to understand why projects fail. I’m sure it wasn’t a point of pride for the team leader to be my first interview.

When we began discussing the project, he got understandably defensive. He brought out pages and pages of reports and charts about the project, where it stood, and how carefully he had tracked it. He talked effusively about his following the latest coding guidelines. He showed me his dog-eared copy of Steve McConnell’s Code Complete, a nearly thousand-page tome recently published on micromanaging the software development process. He seemed almost baffled at how the train wreck happened.

After a while I said, “Let’s back up. Tell me about the project. What’s it all about?”. He said, “it’s version two. Everything that we couldn’t get into version one.” And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This is the first of our episodes on the importance of having a vision. In this episode we’ll look at why a great team vision is a leader’s most important tool. This is Episode Eleven: 2020 Hindsight.

The leader of this doomed version two was one of the bright young stars at Microsoft. He was brilliant, thoughtful, and carefully spoken. He had shoulder length dark brown hair that was almost always perfectly groomed. He was dressed in navy khakis and a sharp polo shirt with the project’s logo on it. In fact, almost everywhere around his office was the professionally designed logo for this latest version. It was not just on his polo, but on the windbreaker hanging on the back of the door. It was on sticker on his laptop and his office window. And it was on the header of every report and chart I was shown.

When I later wrote my paper called “Is Your Project Out of Control?”, this passion for swag was one of the warning signs I noted. If a team is spending more time on the logo or the t-shirt than on the project, it’s a clear warning sign.

But that wasn’t the most important red flag I noted that day. And it wasn’t many of the other warning signs I saw in that team either. I had met with the development manager and a testing lead and found more than a couple signs of trouble. Yet they weren’t the real problem. It wasn’t their inordinate emphasis on secrecy, even inside the company. It wasn’t their fixation on status reports at the expense of real progress. It wasn’t even their ever-increasing number of bugs logged with the notation “fix, if time”.

No, the thing that was their biggest problem was what the team leader told me that very first time I talked with him. “It’s version two,” he said. “Everything we couldn’t get done for version one.”

The problem was the vision for the project. Or rather the lack of one. With version one, they had been forced to get something into the market. They had time limitations and they had market competition. They had a reason to pare it down to is today commonly called the “minimum viable product”. Something that could sell and take a stake in the marketplace.

In the process of pushing version one out the door, they had spent the last several months of that project building an enormous list of things that would just have to wait. And now, with version two, it was the time.

But “everything we didn’t get to” isn’t a vision. It’s not a compelling story. It’s not a rallying cry. It’s not a vision. It’s a cop out.

I’m told I can be pretty annoying when it comes to talking about visions. They tell me that I place an inordinate amount of emphasis on them.

I was asked a couple of years ago by the owner of the gym I frequented for some advice on running his business. The place was clean, the equipment new, the programs well designed. But he was having trouble managing his employees and getting customers in the door.

When I told him that he was missing a vision for the place, he stared blankly at me. I said, “You need a reason for people to both workout here and to work here. A reason for people to come here over Gold’s or 24-Hour Fitness. A way for you to make decisions for your business based on some plan and a vision for the future.” Over the next couple of sessions, while working out with him, we brainstormed some ideas. Was it the gym for timid people? The gym for stay-at-home moms? What did he see as the main goal?

He never decided and soon tired of the conversation. Within a few months he sold the place at a loss. It had collapsed under the weight of its costs and the exodus of employees and members. It’s now an Anytime Fitness franchise.

The research I did over 20 years ago on why projects fail came up with many red flags to look out for. There are all kinds of warning signs – small and trivial, large and obvious. But the most important outcome of that research has been my passion about visions.

I have seen a lack of clear vision cause problems in nearly every discipline. I’ve seen it up close, in projects I’ve worked on and even lead. I’ve seen it in business projects I’ve only seen from afar. You can see it in one of the business world’s most famous failures: the Edsel, the disastrous Ford project of the 1950s. You can see it in Enron, the spectacular implosion in the energy industry in the early 2000s. You can see signs of it today in the Boeing 737 Max project. I’ve seen it in government and politics, most notably in the 2016 election.

The lack of a vision is especially insidious in arenas filled with brainpower workers. Where the employees yearn for clarity and purpose. Teams of brainpower workers without a shared vision will make up their own. And the result is often chaos.

Simply put: a vision for what you’re doing — regardless of what project you’re working on — is vital to its success. I don’t care if you’re installing a new roof, building a skyscraper, or developing the next hot app. If you don’t have a vision for the end result, a target to shoot at, and a shared perspective for the desired outcome, the project will almost certainly flounder.

There are a multitude of reasons why a well-defined, relatively narrow, easily communicated, and broadly shared vision is the foremost element to project success.

The most obvious is that a vision presents a clear target. Something for everyone involved to aim toward. If it’s short, crisp, and memorable, it serves as a rallying cry for the team. It can become a refrain that’s easy to communicate. It can even be the basis for the marketing efforts as the project gets publicity. And it provides everyone on the team a perfect “elevator speech”, the kind of thing everyone needs when someone says “hey, good to see you, what’s up?”

As we discussed in the last episode, a great vision is also the best recruiting tool you have. Being able convince people to work on a project is vital, and there’s no better way to do that than by sharing your enthusiasm for it. Based in a great vision.

An outstanding vision is also a crucial tool when the going gets tough. When things aren’t going well, it’s important to be able to refocus the team on the long-term goal. To be able to say, “remember why we’re doing this”, and get the team off the negative train and back on the road to recovery.

Inside the larger organization, a clear, well-defined vision is a great way to justify yourself. To help you show how your team fits in the larger organization’s strategy. A compelling vision is a great tool to use when those inevitable fights over budget, headcount, or other resources come up.

A solid, widely shared vision allows the rest of the organization clear insight into what you and your team are doing. This can help other groups coordinate their efforts with your team. Or perhaps even stay off your turf. If you’ve publicly staked out an area with your vision, you’re less likely to get competition. Inside the organization and out.

And when organizational politics do come up, a solid vision that fits well with the overall strategy can help immensely. “Hey, wait a minute, we’re the ones fighting the good fight over here, leave us alone!” This kind of tool is vital when the seemingly inevitable internecine warfare breaks out.

Internally, the best value for a great vision is how it helps you run your own team. It allows you to delegate extremely effectively. When everyone understands the vision, they can operate more independently. Strong leaders on your team will use a clear vision to make decisions without the need for your input constantly. And you’ll be assured that it will mesh with the team’s larger goals without feeling like you need to micromanage the entire project.

But after reviewing dozens of projects in a range of industries, I’ve come to understand that the most important value of a vision is just one word: “no”. A great vision – one that’s clear, narrowly defined, and intensely focused – allows you to say “no” with confidence and clarity.

Like the cancelled project at Microsoft, one of the most common causes of project failure is trying to do too much. And you can get there in so many ways. Sometimes it’s just like that version two: just a laundry list of everything we didn’t get done the last time. Sometimes it’s because the goal was too lofty: trying to be the best at everything. Sometimes it’s the dreaded “mission creep”, as in, “well, since we’re already changing the carpet in the living room, let’s redo the kitchen”. Sometimes it’s “while we’re at it” or even “we’ve come this far.”

The worst of these is what happened ended up happening to that version two project. The thing that eventually resulted in the project’s death. They were already late, so what’s the harm in adding in this stuff and being even later? It was the infinite cycle of mission creep.

For many projects, for many organizations, there is enormous value in deciding “no”. Who you’re not. What this project isn’t. Who isn’t our customer.

In the gym space, for example, Planet Fitness has made a name for themselves by deciding they aren’t the gym for people who they call “lunks”. They’ve actively promoted their gym to the people intimidated by bodybuilders and the incredibly well-chiseled Instagram models. They have explicitly decided to reject one customer base to pursue another. I haven’t examined their financials, but since they just opened their 2000th location, it seems to be working for them.

With a good, clear, narrowly defined vision, even day-to-day decisions are simplified. When something new comes up, it’s easy to ask, “does this fit cleanly into the vision?” And reject it if it doesn’t.

Such a vision allows you to prioritize things clearly. The things that have the most impact on the vision go first. The further they get away from that impact, the lower they go on the list.

And since virtually everything is a trade-off, this clarity can help. For example, it’s virtually impossible to create the highest quality product and simultaneously sell it at the lowest possible price. A vision that helps you find your spot on that spectrum saves a lot of anguish and confusion. Within your team, and with your customers.

A great vision isn’t easy to create. It’s far easier to just be everything. To be “the best”, to tackle the whole “to-do list”, to serve every customer. When you ask, “who’s this for?” it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to say, “I think everyone will want it!”. But, that’s a cop out, and a clear recipe for disaster. If you’ve limited your scope with a great vision, you can avoid that fate.

In summary, a clear, crisp vision isn’t just the first thing you should do when you begin a project. It’s not just something for the t-shirt or marketing hype. It’s the cornerstone for the success of your project. And you should never underestimate its value.

Next time, we’ll look into how you create a vision. It’s not easy – and requires discipline and honesty that are hard to muster. In a later episode we’ll discuss how to communicate that vision. To make sure the everyone shares the same perspective and uses it to make their daily decisions.

But in the meantime, remember that without a clear, crisp vision, your project is almost certainly out of control. And that’s no way to enter 2020.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site, CLWill.com. That’s C-L-W-I-L-L.com.

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That’s it for this episode. In the next episode we’ll continue our look at the importance of vision. We’ll explore how to craft a clear, crisp vision. It’s called “Clear View”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.