Project Vision Making

Keeping these prerequisites in mind, how can project managers develop an effective vision? One of the best approaches that I have applied is to hold a facilitated workshop with all key stakeholders.

I refer to the workshop as the project vision workshop, or PVW. The PVW has several goals. The first and foremost goal is to obtain consensus over the overall vision of the project. Other goals include:

  • Build esprit de corps and morale

  • Deal with expectations and assumptions up front

  • Engender a sense of purpose and direction

  • Enhance communications and rapport

  • Generate enthusiasm and support

  • Identify priorities

  • Obtain a realistic appraisal of the circumstances

  • Provide the groundwork to build an effective plan

  • Seek buy-in and commitment

  • Share and clarify information, ideas, concerns, and challenges

These goals, of course, are easier to list than to realize. Nevertheless, you can follow three simple steps to help you to define a vision and to encourage everyone to accept it. I have very successfully applied this general approach on small, medium, and large technical and business management projects. The three steps are:

  • Step #1: Prepare

    • Identify the key stakeholders to attend

    • Determine the contents of the vision

    • Plan the mechanics

  • Step # 2: Execute

    • Apply good "people skills"

    • Keep the focus on the big picture

  • Step #3: Act

    • Bring closure by seeking buy-in and commitment


To some degree, a PVW is a project in itself. Like all projects, the key to success is planning. By planning, project managers can avoid the disasters that often affect other workshops that I have attended: having the wrong people attend or missing key ones; selecting an inappropriate time and place; lacking supplies , equipment, and information; disregarding obvious significant issues; taking way too much time; and, perhaps most frustrating, generating no results. In this section of the chapter, I will focus less on the mechanics of setting up a workshop and more on the people issues and how project managers can deal with them.

Identify the Key Stakeholders to Attend

A stakeholder is a person or organization who will be affected by the outcome of a project, either directly or indirectly. A direct impact can range anywhere from people building a product to an organization applying a product in a work environment. An indirect impact might be someone from a portfolio management group within an organization.

To identify the stakeholders, consider the many roles on a project. They include project executives, sponsors, and champions ; customers; suppliers; contractors; potential core team members ; functional managers; subject matter experts; and, of course, the project manager and other project managers affected by a project.

Perhaps the easiest way to identify stakeholders is to look at organizational charts. These charts will reveal who will have an interest. Another source is to look at the organizational charters . These will provide some idea of their mission, goals, and objectives. This approach is particularly useful for cross-functional projects, where resources may eventually be pulled from different organizations.

It is very important not to stick to stakeholders from a formal hierarchy. Some stakeholders who may be "low on the totem pole" can have tremendous influence, politically or technically. The informal network is often ignored at the peril of many project managers who often lack formal command and control over people. In Harvard Business Review , Rob Cross and Laurence Prusak note that most institutions consider informal networks negatively, thereby inhibiting progress. Consequently, executive and managers try to ignore or bypass them. [6] Project managers who ignore this insight will experience considerable frustration.

Cross and Prusak identify, using social network analysis, four types of people who play important roles in informal networks. A Central Connector is a person with whom others communicate the most. A Boundary Spanner is an "emissary" who connects with others throughout an organization. An Information Broker is a person who realizes that information is power and uses it accordingly . A Peripheral Specialist is the subject matter expert. [7]

Whatever the categories of "movers and shakers" in an informal network, the principal point is that project managers cannot ignore them. The challenge is how to identify them. There are some ways to do this without conducting academic studies. Project managers can first talk with potential formal stakeholders and ask for recommendations of whom else to invite. They can also use their own experience on other projects.

As a side note, one of the most important actions that project managers can take is to develop a formal or informal dossier on each stakeholder. This dossier might contain information like history of working relationships with other stakeholders, type and degree of relationships, historical performance on projects of a similar nature, and potential reasons for support or opposition to a project.

It is very important to identify the extent to which stakeholders might or might not support a project. A good approach is to develop a grid like the one described by Fred Borgiani. It involves creating a matrix that consists of a vertical axis representing the level of support needed and the level of support expected. [8] The matrix might reflect a combination of active and passive supporters and nonsupporters. Armed with this matrix, project managers can understand the reasons behind the support or opposition and anticipate any challenges that might arise.

Determine the Contents of the Vision

The basic contents of a vision, or project charter, are relatively easy to identify. They are goals and objectives, scope, the overall strategy, assumptions, deliverables, roles and responsibilities, constraints, risks, and just about anything else deemed important. The difficulty is dealing with people side issues.

Identifying goals and objectives makes common sense, but the very act can pose considerable challenges. Some challenges include understanding the difference between goals and objectives, embracing conflicting goals and objectives, ill-defining goals and objectives, adopting unrealistic goals and objectives, and keeping focus on goals and objectives while developing the vision. Sometimes goals and objectives adopted are unrealistic or ill defined, raising questions over whether or not they have been achieved.

Of all the challenges facing goals and objectives listed above, two of them can seriously impact developing and executing a vision. Project managers should be mindful of them during the PVW.

The first one often overlooked is the interdependence of goals. Frequently, people treat them as being separate. Interdependence of goals may be positive or negative. For example, the pursuit of one goal may impede the achievement of another, e.g., reduce schedule flow time and keep costs to a minimum.

The other one is the lack of specificity, at least not enough to be useful. In The Logic of Failure , Dorner writes that exploding an unclear goal into discrete elements could have unintended effects. The result is that no criteria will then exist to determine actual progress. [9]

Scope definition is closely tied with goals and objectives. Unfortunately, sometimes some very important "oversights" occur. Because goals and objectives are not clearly defined, for example, the adopted scope could expand since its boundaries are vague, leading to misinterpretation. This enlargement of scope is known as scope creep. If poorly defined, scope will also lead to unrealistic plans by adding work.

Overall strategy is the general approach to achieve goals and objectives. The challenge facing project managers when determining strategy is that a lack of relationship exists between goals and objectives and the adopted strategy. Some people will confuse strategy with goals and objectives, bringing discussions to a halt. If strategy is merely dictated by a few stakeholders, commitment by others will be lacking. In addition, stakeholders often confuse strategy with techniques or tools. If this happens, stakeholders can fall into the trap of concentrating on the details at the expense of looking at the big picture. Consensus, consequently, becomes more difficult to achieve.

Another important danger is developing a strategy out of context, e.g., not considering the business conditions. This situation is known as deconditioning, that is, removing the decision from the context that affects it. The result is the adoption of an unrealistic strategy. Dorner observes that it could hinder adaptability to context because measurement and action may no longer apply to changing circumstances. This need for adaptability, however, often conflicts with the human desire to develop and apply abstract generalizations that may not fit well with current circumstances. [10]

Project managers need to address assumptions, explicit and implicit. Even explicit assumptions, like who provides certain resources, can easily get overlooked. Implicit assumptions, like who provides political support for the project, are more difficult to identify. Failure to identify them can result in erroneous decisions when developing and seeking acceptance of a vision. Later in the project life cycle, the "I thought you thought" scenario can arise, leading to serious complications, e.g., rework .

Deliverables are the main products that result from the efforts and energies expended on a project. Deliverable identification is closely tied to goals and objectives, scope, and assumptions. In the workshop, the danger with deliverables is a lack of definition at a sufficient level of detail to tie to expectations. When expectations about a deliverable are not addressed, everyone operates according to assumptions. Failure to sufficiently address expectations and assumptions surrounding deliverables can result in delivering an unwanted product.

Roles and responsibilities must be defined at a high level at least. These roles and responsibilities depend on the goals, objectives, scope, and deliverables. The challenge will likely not be delineating the roles and responsibilities per se, but identifying them at a sufficient, useful level of detail. Another challenge is determining roles and responsibilities that overlap among stakeholders. "Turf wars" can erupt or resentment over those who do not provide their fair share. Such issues must be addressed up front to avoid squabbling and little or no performance of key roles and responsibilities.

Constraints should be addressed, too. Constraints inhibit project performance, often related to cost, schedule, quality, and people. They affect the goals, objectives, scope, and assumptions for projects. The biggest challenge with constraints is that the goals, objectives, and scope frequently bear only a partial relationship with the constraints. For instance, the scope might be too large for the budget or the schedule is too tight for a project. Constraints often reflect "trade-offs" that can cause suboptimization of goals and objectives.

Risks pose a particularly interesting problem when developing a vision. Often risks reflect the degree of acceptance of risk held by the stakeholders. The other complication is who will assume responsibility to deal with certain risks. This issue becomes especially difficult when a risk has cross-functional impacts. When cross-functional impacts are involved, project managers must seriously consider challenges for obtaining consent to a vision.

The key point is to recognize that not everything is easily identifiable and challenges must be overcome . Most challenges can be addressed by planning the mechanics of the workshop.

Plan the Mechanics

There are two aspects to consider when planning for a workshop. The first one is setting up the workshop; the other is its conduct.

Setting up a workshop includes the standard things that should be done for other workshops: ensure the facilities are comfortable, make sufficient supplies available, have it at a location that reduces opportunities for distraction, have it for an appropriate length of time, consider travel and lodging arrangements, address food and refreshments, and much more. While important, they are not enough.

Planning for the conduct of the workshop is just as important and is often overlooked. Though an agenda might be sent to everyone, there is much more including:

  • Access to relevant data

  • Approaches for capturing and disseminating comments and decisions

  • Definitions of roles and responsibilities, such as a scribe and facilitators

  • Follow-up actions after developing the vision

  • Order of presentation of the vision's components

  • Pace of topics covered in the agenda

  • Rules and approaches for managing conflict

  • Techniques for capturing buy-in and consensus

  • Techniques for making decisions

An excellent approach to take prior to a workshop is to contact each stakeholder that will be attending . The purpose is to ascertain if any ideas, concerns, topics, or issues should be addressed prior to the workshop. More importantly, they might have similar items to address while conducting the workshop. By acting in advance, this will help to avoid challenges that may arise during the actual conduct of a workshop.


The difficult part of the PVW is the actual execution. Project managers must deal with the realities of getting stakeholders to develop and commit to a vision. It is the "moment of truth" and lays the groundwork for what to expect in regards to buy-in and commitment during the life cycle of a project.

Apply Good People Skills

During a workshop, project managers will face many challenges; many that are related to the interactions of people. Some challenges that will confront project managers are: differences in mental models; disagreements over the definition and specific contents of elements in the vision, e.g., goals and strategy; stakeholders' reluctance to share information and work together; an unwillingness to cooperate or follow rules while developing the vision; and commitment to decisions.

Project managers, therefore, must have some level of knowledge and expertise in dealing with different stakeholders, to include effective listening, collaborative problem-solving, negotiating, and conflict management skills.

Effective listening requires that they seek first to understand and then be understood . There are two parts to being an effective listener. The first is to listen actively; to actively engage in what the stakeholders say. This engagement does not mean emotional involvement; rather, it means empathizing to understand not only what they say but also their perspectives. This approach will allow you to ask meaningful questions to glean important information and additional points for clarification . This information will enable you to identify opportunities to determine ways to develop a vision on which stakeholders concur. In addition, it will help determine the true meaning behind the reactions of stakeholders.

The second part is to show an interest in listening. The techniques involved are well known. They include maintaining eye contact; giving acknowledgment that you understand, e.g., response; and concentrating on the talker and what is said.

Negotiating is important. Although project managers will be facilitating, they must also agree with the vision. If a company can afford it, it could bring in a professional facilitator for the PVW, which is rare. If it cannot afford it, project managers must play that key role.

This thought brings up a key point. Project managers will be "walking a thin line." They must actively involve themselves in a workshop, but not lose objectivity at the same time. They must participate in a manner to ensure that they do not inherit an unrealistic vision or one that lacks qualities that cause more problems than not having any vision at all. At the same time, they must avoid falling prey to the tendency to join the turf wars, which may cause them to lose their objectivity and key support.

When negotiating, the best approach I have found is the one advocated by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their landmark book, Getting to Yes .

The authors note that people step into several traps when negotiating and these pertain to project managers. These include arguing over positions , being too nice, and being too negative. To avoid such dangers, they suggest the following:

  • Focus on interests, not positions

  • Insist on using objective criteria

  • Invent options for mutual gain

  • Separate people from the problem [11]

A good example is the discussion of goals. Stakeholders may start by arguing over who has a right to determine the goals. The project manager should naturally avoid letting this circumstance arise by managing the discussion in a way to separate the stakeholder from the issue and posture the discussion to focus on mutual interests rather than end in a Win-Lose scenario. If some problem exists over goals, project managers may identify different ways to rephrase them and then orient the discussions towards resolution of interests. If it appears that an impasse might occur, project managers can proceed to define another goal and later return to the one in dispute. This approach will provide a "cooling off" period and time to develop alternative ways to define a goal.

To increase the opportunity for effective negotiating among all participants , remember to engender a positive environment, increase the opportunities for mutual understanding and sharing of thoughts, encourage "give and take" during discussions, and foster good communication. Project managers should, above all, take the responsibility to ensure that all of this happens successfully.

Developing a vision requires that people work together. Obviously, this is easier said than done because many opportunities exist for collaboration to break down. These include people subscribing to different mental models, misinterpreting comments, and differences over priorities and resource allocation.

The keys to effective collaboration are to avoid putting stakeholders in a Win-Lose situation by:

  • Defining the issue, not the solution

  • Developing different solutions via brainstorming

  • Seeking consensus

  • Selecting the best solution

Defining an issue is 80 percent of the work. If a stalemate arises over strategy, for example, determine the causes for it by first determining the fundamental contributors to a stalemate. Try to depersonalize the issue as much as possible by not talking about positions and emphasizing more of the facts and data. Then, get their participation in developing several alternatives and criteria to select the best alternative. After selecting the alternative, project managers should question stakeholders whether a selected alternative is agreeable to all and revise , if necessary. Above all, avoid giving the impression that a solution represents a victory of one stakeholder at the expense of another.

Conflict management is closely associated with effective collaboration, except that it often follows after collaboration breaks down. There are, of course, many factors that can contribute to conflict, e.g., different personalities, general atmosphere, unclear or inflexible policies and procedures, mental models, and preferences for approaching a project. If not handled well, these factors can cause an impasse over important issues or lack of acceptance of a vision.

The primary objective of conflict management is to maintain positive relationships to ensure goal attainment . To effectively manage conflict requires that project managers follow these steps:

  • Develop alternatives to address the issue

  • Focus on the issue, not the personalities

  • Use objective criteria to select the best alternative

  • Verify consensus for the alternative selected

From my experience, I have often found that conflicts can be handled quite well when certain techniques are employed to define the issue. For example, often the use of words gets muddied over semantics and is accompanied with great emotion. Use of metaphors, visual images, e.g., maps and charts, and even role playing can help in resolving such conflicts. A diagram, such as a flow chart or even a picture, can help clarify an issue and lead to an acceptable solution.

Sometimes, however, emotions can run so high that any logical approach might seem impossible to employ . Under such circumstances, project managers can "table" an issue and move to another and return to it later. They can solicit outside help, preferably someone without a stake on the outcome, to mediate a solution. Regardless, all stakeholders should heed three simple suggestions when managing conflict, especially when embroiled in the middle of it: treat people with respect; listen until you experience the other side; and state your views, needs, and feelings. [12] By doing these three things, communication with one another will be better, which will increase the likelihood of developing a mutually beneficial solution.

Keep the Focus on the Big Picture

During a PVW, it is so easy for everyone to lose focus on the overall goal ” develop a shared vision. That is because there are so many opportunities to squabble. The one person who can help to prevent the squabbling from taking over is the project manager, because he or she is responsible for getting all the players to work together to support a vision. But, how does he or she make this happen?

A project manager has several options. The best approach is to gear all discussions from the context of how an idea, for example, can contribute to the overall purpose of a project. This approach is easier to employ if the goals and objectives have been defined. If the goals and objectives have not been defined, a project manager can reference a higher organization's goals and objectives. Another approach is to discuss the impact of an idea within the scope of influence and scope of control defined by a project. Another approach is to encourage people to consider an idea or issue from different perspectives and then address it from those vantage points. Project managers can also hire outside experts to address issues because they appear objective and lack a vested interest in the outcome of an issue. Also useful are internal experts, such as those from a portfolio management office or a project management office.


After completing a vision, however, commitment must follow it. The best way to achieve that is to treat the vision statement development as a stewardship agreement (as Covey discusses), meaning that it is not imposed on, but genuinely adopted by, all the stakeholders at the PVW.

Bring Closure by Seeking Buy-In

An effective way to achieve that is to emphasize that stakeholders shared in the vision through joint decision making. Project managers should also emphasize that a vision will serve as a road map to guide the project to completion by serving as the authoritative source to make decisions. To solidify the consensus, project managers should take three actions.

First, they should ask all stakeholders at the PVW to sign the vision, or charter. If any stakeholder objects, then address the objection right away or determine if it needs to be directed to some higher level of management, if necessary, to be resolved.

Second, they should give each stakeholder a copy. The purpose is to give the stakeholders time to review it and, if necessary, call for a subsequent PVW to resolve any differences.

Finally, after achieving consensus, project managers should give considerable visibility to the vision. This visibility will increase the likelihood of adherence to it. An effective approach is to post the vision on a web site so that everyone can access it. Another way is to reference it during planning and subsequent activities.

[6] Rob Cross and Laurence Prusak, The people who make organizations go - or stop, Harvard Business Review , p. 105, June 2002.

[7] Rob Cross and Laurence Prusak, The people who make organizations go - or stop, Harvard Business Review , pp. 105-112.

[8] Fred Borgiani, Stakeholder support: the key to getting your ideas implemented, PM Network , pp. 46 “48, February 1998.

[9] Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure , Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA, 1996, p. 61.

[10] Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure , Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA, 1996, p. 98

[11] Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes , Penguin Books, New York, 1988, pp. 17 “98.

[12] Robert Bolton, People Skills , Touchstone, New York, 1986, pp. 221 “222.

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