The Project Vision. It is a key component in the theory of project and programme management. The project vision defines project success. So how can you achieve project success when your project has no vision?
Project vision is not given
For any project, the vision defines what is in scope and what is out. From a project vision stems the benefits, scope, outcomes, deliverables and milestones of a project. Vision is the big picture that ensures all stakeholders are on the same page about the purpose and benefits of the project investment.
It’s a good theory. The reality of government projects however, is that many begin without a clear and defined vision. Most begin with vague policy statements that describe some catch-all public-good outcome. Such statements are counterproductive to project delivery because they do not define outcomes that are achievable within the available budget and timeline.
For a myriad of reasons, consensus about the project vision in government can be difficult to achieve. This is often because defining a project vision by definition, places an initial scope on the project. Vision, rules-in and rules-out who benefits and thus who does not. Vision defines what will be done and how money will be spent. Typically, senior people within government and the public service, prefer to use catch-all statements that assist to manage the politics of the issue the project seeks to address. However, this approach is totally unhelpful to the actual delivery on-ground outcomes by the project.
While it is true that you do not need a clearly-defined vision to begin a project, you absolutely need one to successfully end a project. This brings us to the multi-million dollar question: how do you define what you should be doing, when you don’t know what you are going to do?
There is only one answer: the project must define its own vision.
Ask the stakeholders
Defining a project vision begins by assuming that a vision can be defined. This is tested by developing a project vision and making an attempt to achieve stakeholder consensus. If consensus cannot be achieved, the assumption is false and the project is in trouble. Without a clearly defined and consensus vision, the project will struggle to progress because internal conflicts that will require constant management. It will be very difficult to gain authority to make decisions. If the project does deliver, it will be likely miss the target of genuine stakeholder requirements. Either way the result will be wasted public investment.
Defining a project vision begins with a stakeholder analysis. Talking to people individually and privately to ask them what the project should achieve and why. Listen carefully to what they say. It is likely that each stakeholder will have their own vision for the project. These individual visions will be based on personal beliefs, wants or organisational problems. It is likely that these will also not be clearly defined. Inevitably this means that the analyst will need to read across and between the lines of individual responses.
Review the documentation
At the same time of the stakeholder analysis, a document analysis should be completed. Every government project is initiated with documentation that will contain many insights as to the project purpose. When reading the project documentation look for statements that describe the benefits of the project and who receives them. Look for statements about outcomes be they short, medium or long term.
Create your vision and gain consensus
The next step is to use the lessons from the stakeholder analysis and document analysis to define the project vision statement. Hopefully the statements you have collected will have a common thread. This thread is likely to be the project vision, even though it may not be explicitly or clearly described. From these threads create a new project vision statement. Write it down, share it around and ask for feedback. If responses are positive and generally in agreement then refine your statement towards consensus. Write the final statement into the project plan and seek endorsement from the project sponsor or board.
If the feedback about a vision statement is mixed, confused or contradictory, this is a sure sign of conflict within the project operating environment. It is a clear signal that the project is on a path towards trouble. When key project stakeholders cannot agree to a project vision, work must be done to uncover and resolve the underlying issues.
Dealing with a project that has a confused or contradictory vision is perhaps one of the most difficult and challenging situations a project manager or business analyst may have to manage. Regardless, it is a problem that must be resolved before major progress can be made.
Gaining alignment between project stakeholders, especially those with some form of authority is essential to successful project delivery. It should be given priority in every project. Thankfully, for most projects a defined and clear vision can be achieved with a small effort in stakeholder analysis, document analysis and negotiation. All of which are core skills of a business analyst.