Let me say this right from the top: there is no single more important factor to the success of a project than a clear, crisp, shared vision. Period. Now let me tell you why.
I have seen a lot of projects. Big projects involving thousands of people over many years and with tens of millions of variables. Small projects involving a couple of people over a couple of weeks. And many in between. While it is self-evident that having a clear, shared vision isn’t a magic bullet that solves all problems, it is equally clear to me that every project without one struggles and often fails. To put it in science terms: having a clear, crisp, shared vision is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to project success.
There are a number of reasons why having a vision is so important:
- A vision helps everyone on the team make decisions
- A vision is a useful yardstick for project completion, success, and failure
- A vision can form the basis for the promotion and marketing of the project
- A vision is a rallying cry, greatly improving team morale
Helps the team make decisions
Without a vision, team members make many day-to-day decisions in a vacuum. Most of our lives are made up of hundreds of small choices, and a few large ones. What should I have for lunch? Should I take I-5 or the surface streets? Should I marry this person? In the workplace it is no different. Should we add this feature to a product? Should I do this right or just get it done? Should I hire/fire this person? Some context for making all these decisions is vital.
In our personal lives, we make these choices based on many factors, from our experience, our research, perhaps even our faith. Our work lives are very much the same, decisions get based on some framework. If we work for an organization where cost is the key concern, we make decisions in that framework and look for ways to make each choice be the one that is most cost-effective. If we work for a firm providing only the best products or services, everyone can make each of their myriad choices based on that knowledge.
Without a vision, everyone from the top of the organization on down is left to make decisions without a foundation. For example, let’s say you are constructing a new building whose vision is: create the tallest building in the world on this specific site in Tokyo for a budget of 750 million yen. With that vision, the architect clearly knows that anything less than the tallest building is not correct. They also know the parameters of what they can spend on materials, because they have a budget. The construction managers know precisely what the location is, what access to the site is like, and what they need to consider with respect to zoning laws. And each worker knows where to report.
But it goes beyond that. As the project progresses, questions will come up. Should we add this flagpole to the top? Having this vision helps make that decision — it adds to the height and furthers the vision, so “yes”, add the flagpole. The people working on the project know clearly the objective, so this decision doesn’t have to be discussed and debated to death. There are thousands of other small decisions that having a clear, crisp, well-communicated vision can help you with.
Is a useful yardstick
A vision provides often provides a clear yardstick for success. To take the previous example, if the building is 10 meters short of the tallest building in the world, you know precisely that it was not a success. As it progresses, and the budget is consumed, you can tell precisely how you are doing against the goal of 750 million yen. And so on.
The vision can illuminate well down into the organization as well. If you are working on a small part of the project, and what you are doing is not in concert with, or worse, in direct opposition to the vision, you know there is a problem. With a properly defined vision, everyone on the team can not only measure their part in the project, but also their performance against it. I made the decision to put on the flagpole, that pushed us over the top, my contribution to the project was essential.
Forms the basis for the promotion and marketing
Once you have a clear vision, it also can enlighten outside the organization. Again taking the above example, you know the promotional material for this building will trumpet the fact that it is the tallest building in the world.
Having the vision defined early in the project also allows the marketing development work to happen simultaneous with the project, instead of having to wait until later when the project nears completion. This head start can save months of headaches and can lead to positive feedback loops. As the marketing messages are floated early in the project, the team can even react to input from the initial customer reaction to the vision, instead of after the project is over and has been released to customers.
Great visions also lead to great marketing. If a vision is exciting and invigorating for the team, it can also be so for the customers. And some great visions have even made it into the real world from inside a company. Rumor has it that Wal-Mart’s “Always low prices. Always” was a vision established internally by Sam Walton, and it escaped into the wild… and eventually got plastered everywhere.
Is a rallying cry
Perhaps the most important thing that a great vision can do is serve as a rallying cry for the team. Each and every member of the team will be asked by friends, coworkers, family, everyone, “what are you up to these days?” Having a crisp, snappy reply can be extremely invigorating for people. “Building the tallest building in the world” as a quick comeback to the question is enough to make most people extremely proud. Not only are they proud of what they want to do, but it enables them to speak spontaneously about their part in it, and to feel like what they are doing has some meaning.
Contrast this with the typical reply: “oh, you know, same ol’, same ol’.” Most people aren’t fortunate to go to work doing something they love to do, or can be proud to be a part of. Use the vision for your project as a way to communicate the importance of the project to every member of the team, and let them share in the passion you have for the objective.
Besides, if your vision is good, clear, and full of impact, you can use it at the end of every meeting, at the bottom of every slide, and even as part of a secret handshake…
Summary — Vision is Extremely Important
A clear, crisp, well-communicated vision that is shared by, and used by, the whole team can be the difference between success and failure of a project. You need to work on defining the vision early in the process, and use it constantly throughout the project to aid in decision making, as a rallying cry for the troops, and as a yardstick for success. Next up, how to define a great vision. More on that soon.