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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Roadside Checkup: How Clear is your Project Vision?

[Also available as a podcast]

When I was fifteen, I spent the summer visiting my relatives in Alberta. Nothing unusual about that, as we did that most summers. We would usually drive the nearly 14 hours to Calgary and then spend a few very enjoyable weeks visiting the grandparents, exploring the farmyard and visiting our many aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives in the area.

What was different about that summer is that our family divided up the visits, allowing us kids to each spend more time with our relatives, one-on-one. I spent a few days with my grandparents, and then one of my Aunts came to pick me up and drive me up to their farm an hour and a half to the north. My parents were going to pick me up later in the week to take me to the next relative.

It was a hot, dry summer, which was not uncommon in the prairies. Her car was brown. Actually, it might not have been brown, it was just coated in so much dust you couldn't see the colour underneath. My grandparents waved from the front steps of the farmhouse as we rumbled away down the gravel driveway, dust rising high behind the car. It was a little hard to see, but I didn't think too much of it. Everything was dusty that summer.

As we drove down the main gravel road and onto the stretch of pavement before we reached the main highway, my Aunt said she needed to stop and get some gas. We pulled into a little gas station and the attendant started to pump the fuel. 

"Just need to clean the windshield," she said as she hopped out of the car and grabbed a squeegee from the bucket beside the gas pump. I remained seated in the car.

She dragged the wet spongy side across the top of the window, and rivulets of mud tracked down the glass. She re-wet the squeegee several times as she progressively sponged and cleared the dust and mud off the outside of the window. 

She looked at the window, frowned, and then leaned into the car to have a look out of the windshield. "You might want to get out," she said as she walked back around the car towards the squeegee bucket. 

I unbuckled myself and got out of the car just as she stepped forward and proceeded to drag the wet squeegee across the inside of the windshield. It, too was covered in dust, and trickles of mud ran down the glass and dripped onto the dashboard. Slightly flustered, she quickly cleaned the inside of the window, paid the attendant and then we got back into the car.

As we drove down the dust-free highway, windows still down but now able to see ahead of us more clearly, I asked her why the car was so dusty on the inside. She replied that the car did not have air conditioning, so naturally driving with the windows down was a good substitute.

However, living on a farm (with no air conditioning), you had to keep the windows down to cool off, but of course that let the dust in. With the manual window winders and only one person in the car, it was hard to put the windows up and down as you regularly went from asphalt to dirt or gravel - so she mostly left them down.

Thus the coating of dust throughout the car, inside and out.

Driving with clear visibility in front of you is obviously important - that is why my Aunt cleaned the window once we were off the dusty road. But ask yourself this - how many of us truck on ahead with our projects, "just getting the work done", but with no clear vision of where we are going or what is up ahead?

It might just be time to pull off the road and check those windows.

Project Vision

Everybody loves vision statements, right? Of course we do! Countless hours are spent on corporate vision statements, coming up with either something short and catchy, or something long and hard to understand. Too pithy - or too boring - and the value of the Vision statement is lost. It may be relegated to a poster on the back wall, a sheet in your filing cabinet, and only dusted off every now an then. Not a productive result.

I am not mocking vision statements (OK, maybe a few of them that I have seen), but the value of a strong collective vision cannot be overstated. The difficulty with some corporate vision statements is that they try to cover too much - or use vague, meaningless gobbledygook.

You need to have a clear vision for your team - for your project, in order to get things done effectively. Fortunately, the smaller scope of your project (vs the company's overarching objectives) makes it much more likely that you can create a clear, compelling vision without trying to take on the world.

And practically speaking, you don't have to be pithy, or overly clever. You just need to paint a clear picture of where you are going and why, and you will start to develop team buy-in.

Paint the Landscape

Even though I could not initially see clearly out of the front window, I already was picturing the fun I would be having on the farm, visiting my Aunt, Uncle and Cousin, playing with the dog and exploring the farmyard, and seeing the deer and the cows in the fields. Then - playing Canasta in the afternoon - and hopefully Cribbage. I loved playing crib - my grandfather taught us kids and I played it with all of my relatives. It was a quintessential part of summer holidays and every visit I have had with them since.

I had a clear vision of what would happen during my visit, and it excited me. I couldn't wait, and now that I could see out of the window, I watched for familiar landmarks along the way that marked us getting closer and closer. When we passed "Loch Nessy" in a slough, and the gum-booted scarecrow on the ladder, I knew we were but minutes away from my destination.

As your project begins, you need to paint a clear vision of where you are going and what you are trying to achieve. They need to understand the purpose for what they are doing - how they are going to make a difference - and what will be better because of our project. Make it compelling, but be truthful about challenges you may face - as there are always challenges and you will need to face them together.

What is it about your project that makes it worthwhile? Why should people be excited about it? If you can't think of any answers, you will have trouble communicating the vision to your team - so be clear in your own vision and make sure to communicate that passion.

Just be mindful that there are many things that can arise that will obscure the Vision for the project team.

Clear the Outside

Just like the layers of dust and grime on the outside of your windscreen, there are many external factors that can serve to blur the project Vision. The external factors may be truly from outside sources, or they may take the form of constant stakeholder requests for changes to the project scope. You may have a change in regulations that impacts what you have to deliver, and you may have to backtrack and re-factor those changes into your project plan and requirements.

Whether these are controlled changes (with a change request) or scope creep, sometimes the result can still be the same - the repeated change of focus can divert you onto the side roads until you suddenly look up, and find you are heading in a different direction and you have lost track of the highway.

Other times, you may be overly focused on making all of your stakeholders "happy", forgetting the big picture while trivial details accumulate on the windscreen until you can't see forward. You may give the wipers a flick, but it may be too late - that dark shape ahead may not be the next vehicle in front of you - it may be a tree.

Cleaning the outside of the windscreen on a regular car is needed often enough that they built specific systems into your car to handle it. Press a button, and you get a squirt of cleaner from a hidden reservoir, along with a few flicks of the wipers. As long as you check your wiper fluid levels and change the blades regularly, the risks of poor external visibility are easily avoided.

While you may not be able to solve your external project vision issues at the press of a button, there are many systems, tools and approaches that are designed to help you reduce external blurring of your vision.

Clearing the inside, however, is a different matter.

Clear the Inside

Your typical car is designed to handle only one type of visual obscurity on the inside of your windscreen - fog. Specifically, condensed moisture on the cold glass. A special setting on your heater system defogs the front window by blowing air directly on it so you can soon see to drive safely.

Unfortunately, this does not help much if the inside of your window is actually dirty. From accumulated films to actual dust and dirt, these all have to be removed by hand. None of the vehicle systems will do this for you automatically.

And just like your car - the hardest thing to notice is often the blurring caused from within the project team itself. It can also be the most challenging to fix, and sometimes requires more effort from the project manager than dealing with the external threats to clear project vision.

Some of the problems that can afflict your team are:
  • Distraction
  • Confusion 
  • Poor attitudes
  • High occurrences of rework 
  • Poor quality
  • Zombies*
These issues may not all be immediately visible to the project manager, but they can be caused by lack of focus on the big picture. It is easy to lose track of the project Vision in the day to day tasks and scramble to solve this problem, review that document and get that urgent report done before the next project team meeting.

Don't just communicate the Vision once at the start of the project - the Project Vision is something you need to keep repeating and promoting throughout the project, especially when times are tough.

It may seem silly, obvious or repetitive to you, but re-affirming the vision and having the team keep one eye on the big picture will help them get past their current difficulties and re-energize their efforts. It will also help them keep on track.

Check the Rear View Mirror

While we are talking about windows and vision, don't forget that back window and the rear view mirror. You may not look through those as often, but keep them clear anyway.

Sometimes, you just need to see where you came from to know how far you've come. Your destination may be closer than you think.

This may take the form of reviewing project deliverable completion status, major milestones achieved, tough challenges you survived, and many other elements of the project that can all too easily become a blur of "what came before". 

People are strange creatures - everything is relative. Most of today's problems are perceived as "big". As you work through the major problems, yesterday's minor ones become today's "major" problems. We seem to need to have problems to solve, some challenge to keep us busy and worked up. However, this can seem like an endless cycle for those working through problem after problem, challenge after challenge, and it can wear you down.

So let's adjust the rear view mirror for everyone in the car to see what is reflected in it.

Let everyone take a long, long look in the rear view mirror as you turn eastward onto the final leg of your journey. Those Rocky Mountains you see in the mirror are all of the major challenges you have already faced together - as a team. The foothills in front of them are the smaller challenges you tackled after that, shrinking progressively to the hills and bumps of the recent, smaller challenges closer behind you. They may have all felt like mountains, but looking back it becomes apparent that not all of them were as big as the Rockies. The remaining road of your project may not be perfectly flat - but the smaller hills and valleys in front of you should hopefully be put back into a better perspective.

Although we cannot run our projects by looking backward all of the time, it is good to have the small rear view mirror as part of our overall perspective. It can help to balance our vision, keeping us mindful of how far we have progressed, while allowing most of our attention to remain focused on the road ahead.


Not being a driver at the time, the lack of clear vision from inside the car when we left my grandparents did not concern me - I trusted my Aunt, and she was a good driver. Cleaning the front window made a striking difference in our ability to see; I had not realized just how dirty the window was until she cleaned it. 

On our projects, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture - the Vision - when we are working away inside the vehicle on the detail of the project delivery. While we are trudging on, day by day, dust may be slowly collecting on our windscreen, unnoticed. Looking regularly through the window, we may not notice the gradual loss of vision - until we are suddenly in the ditch and calling for a tow truck.

You need to periodically pull over and do a visibility check. You might even need an "external" person to help point out the smears on the window, or simply step out of the car yourself (safely on the side of the road) to look at it from a different perspective.

However, we are reminded that it is not just the outside of the window you need to keep clear. You also need to clear the dust and clutter that keep you from seeing the glass in the first place - from the inside

Good luck with your projects, have a good squeegee handy, and keep your eyes on the road ahead.

Gary Nelson, PMP