Common Vision – the Best Kind of Alignment

Posted by Ken Pedersen - 28 June, 2012

By Ken Pedersen, COO, Geneca

This article was published at CIO Update and Time Magazine.

We’ve all been there. The business announces an exciting new project. You organize an implementation team. The team’s excited, the kick-off is great, the first stand-up meetings rock. Then, fast forward three months and the team is struggling. Decision makers are hard to find or uninvolved in the day-to-day. Business decisions still haven’t been made. Stakeholders are fighting for their political ‘must haves’ that were hardly mentioned at the start. What happened?

This is a team that was not set up to succeed at the start of the project.

When we talk about ‘setting up teams to succeed – from the start,’ we mean it is crucial to build a common vision of project success.  This is the strongest kind of business alignment there is. The better job we do on this, the better chance a project has to succeed.

Hanging on by a single thread?

Building common vision is like creating a shipyard rope. When you manufacture rope, you first spin fibers into yarns.  Next, the yarns are formed into strands by twisting.  Finally, you intertwine those strands further to create – voila! - rope.

An individual fiber is easily broken when you pull it hard. Strands, while stronger, can be easily cut – as with scissors. By the time you have transformed those same strands into rope, however, you have created something exponentially stronger, capable of towing ships thousands of tons in weight.

A project vision owned by one person is like that individual strand. It is vulnerable to the stresses of the ‘project shipyard.’  One person’s project vision doesn’t benefit from the diverse knowledge and perspectives brought by team members from different organizational areas.  And, if that single person is absent, progress slows and decisions get second-guessed.  Compared with teams unified by a clear, common understanding of project goals, single-vision projects often miss key requirements, suffer from unpredictable project rhythms and often have difficulty adapting to change. Therefore, it is vital that the project sponsor actively engage with the team to help them take ownership for the project vision.

The Strength of the Rope is in the ‘Twisting’

When done well, the process of building common vision meshes a team’s understanding of the initiative into a single narrative.  This collaboration creates a clear story line that both leadership and team grasp because they all contribute to it.  Because the vision belongs to the team, team members remind each other and reinforce the project “raison d’être,” while overcoming the real world challenges that all projects encounter.  The process of building common vision encourages clarity and a consensus view of project success. For this reason, building a shipyard-tough project vision usually includes structured face-to-face discussions that ensure the tough questions are asked. Those most  affected by the decisions can contribute their perspectives. The decisions the team makes based on these talks drive downstream requirements.

This is why we say ‘building common vision’ is the best kind of alignment.  Common vision connotes collaboration and transformation. For example, front-line staffers learn and internalize the reasons why the project exists in the first place. Abstract-thinking managers learn about probable customer or quality side effects of their envisioned change. Specialists contribute little-known knowledge that can make the difference between successful adoption and user avoidance. Even the hard-driving project sponsor becomes sensitized to important nuances she may have overlooked. Together, team members work through and address each obstacle. The give and take builds a bond. The experience transforms the group in a way not easily replicated by going straight to the details of written requirements.

Is your project shipyard tough? Ask these questions and you’ll know.

  1. Has the project sponsor set out clear “must do” business outcomes for the project?
  2. Have business members of the team articulated a vision of project success in non-technical language?
  3. If you ask three project members to define the project’s success criteria, do you get the same answer?
  4. Does the business understand what they are getting in a way that gives them insight into progress?
  5. Has the business sponsor actively worked with the project team to discuss and address challenges and obstacles they see in achieving the project’s purpose?

The team with the strong common vision, like the shipyard rope, is resilient because its diverse interwoven strands bring the strength of diversity, but ultimately twist tightly in the same direction. Many strands melded into one become a strong, durable force for achieving a successful outcome.

Topics: communication, leadership, software development, work smarter

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