Without the invention of the lighthouse, who knows how many more lives would have been lost with ships veering off course only to be smashed on hidden rocks and sunk. And so it’s the same with planning projects (metaphorically speaking).
Without a clear direction it’s easy for a project to crash into problems. The answer is for each project to have its very own lighthouse. Or, in other words, a guiding light.
Also known as a project vision statement, it “provides a high-level purpose, defines a crystal-clear objective, and sets the tone for the execution of the project, [laying] the foundation for the ultimate success of the project,” explained Adil F. Dalal in the book The 12 Pillars of Project Excellence.
Whether it’s for big projects (and likely distilled from a project charter), or for small projects, it will be the yardstick which every stage of the project planning process will be measured against. So, you’d better make it good. In fact, you can find out more about the other stages of project planning in the guide: Mission Controlled: the 5-Step Guide to Planning Projects.
And if you think creating a vision, or guiding light, is really not that important, then you’d better think again. According to the Project Management Institute’s 2015 Pulse of the Profession report the main reason for 30 per cent of its members’ projects failing was due to the absence of an adequate vision or goal for the project.
And it’s not just enough to create any old guiding light. It needs to be clear and powerful. It needs to share the same qualities as any effective piece of written communication.
How to create a clear and powerful guiding light
Several years ago, two brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, wrote a book about how to make ideas stick – so that ideas are understood, remembered and have a lasting impact.
The book, Made to Stick, outlines six principles for sticky ideas, but we will focus on the two most appropriate – “simplicity” and “concreteness” (but feel free to pick up the book to see the rest – it’s a great read, as you would expect).
Make it simple
Don’t be misled by the word ‘simple’. Making your statement simple can be a challenge. As Apple founder Steve Jobs once remarked: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Simplicity is about not saying too much (so you put people off), but saying enough to be meaningful, as well as how you say it (to make sense). As the Heath Brothers wrote: “To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritise. Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound.”
As well as keeping your statement short (one to two sentences would be ideal), you’ll also want to keep your words short. Never use a big word when a short one will do. And the same is true of jargon or business speak. Never use it when a simpler and clearer word will do (and in 99.9 per cent of the time there will be a better alternative). In fact, despite the above advice about keeping things short, you are better using a couple more words if that makes what you are saying clearer. Clarity and brevity go hand in hand, but clarity is the boss in the relationship.
Make it concrete
Few could argue against having clear communications (a guiding light statement included), but clarity is often elusive.
The trick, according to the Heath Brothers, is to “explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. This is where so much business communication goes awry. Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions – they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless.”
It’s not a new problem. In 1907, the US War Department in 1907 awarded the Wright Brothers (that’s right, the aircraft pioneers) the contract to build one working airplane.
One of the specifications noted that the airplane should be “sufficiently simple in its construction and operation to permit an intelligent man to become proficient in its use within a reasonable length of time”.
As Jerry L Wellman in his book Improving Project Performance: Eight Habits of Successful Project Teams, pointed out: “Anyone with project management experience will immediately react to the vagueness of such phrases as ‘sufficiently simple’, ‘intelligent man’, ‘become proficient in its use’, and ‘reasonable length of time’… No doubt the Wright Brothers had lively conversations between themselves and with the Army customer representative about how to interpret these phrases during the airplane design phase and later when testing began.”
In practice, it can be helpful to think about writing “visually”. For example, take the opening sentence of this blog. Did you think the visual metaphor worked? Well, you’re still reading, so that’s a good sign.
So, what does a great guiding light look like?
Where vagueness can cause confusion and potential delays, a clear and specific statement can really do magical things. In fact, it can help rally an entire nation (never mind a project team), certainly in the case of another gravity-defying milestone.
On 25 May 1961, President John F Kennedy stood in front of a lectern and delivered to the US Congress what is regarded as one of the greatest speeches in history. In it he said: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
Okay, so that’s a speech and not an actual project statement. But it’s a good place to start getting some inspiration – after all, great (simple) writing should be as close to the spoken word as possible. JFK’s historic line was simple, concrete, visual and inspiring.
Collaborate on the guiding light
It’s not a good idea to sit in a darkened room by yourself to dream up a vision, or guiding light statement. This is best done with help – namely the help of your stakeholders.
In her book, Communicating Projects, Anne Pilkington pointed out: “The best visions are developed collaboratively. People are more likely to buy in to the vision if they have helped create it, plus the vision is more likely to be a realistic reflection of what the project can achieve. It can be easy to be too ambitious with vision statements and over-promise what the solution will deliver. Bringing in some stakeholders to help introduces an outside perspective which can be helpful.”
Set up a brainstorming session and bring along some good examples of successful statements to help show stakeholders what you should be aiming for. I’m sure JFK would approve if you took along his words mentioned above.