Keeping Your Eyes on the Goal

Register now

Many projects fail because their goals are unclear or their course is diverted during execution. A concise vision statement can prevent this. A few hours spent creating a well-defined vision statement will help the project to be communicated and understood better, will help the project stay on course and will ensure that your goals are met. In order to achieve these benefits, you need to take a structured approach to building your vision.

We all have things that we want to achieve in our personal and business lives. You can’t even work the satellite-navigation in your car without having a goal. Like in the car, our goals help make choices about the path we follow – hopefully the road we’re on is heading toward our destination and not away from it.

Setting a destination also helps when you need to communicate to others where you’re heading – next time someone asks where you’re going just give them a list of roads and ask if they want to come along.

In business, the way we can express our goals is with a vision statement. Vision statements are not just those huge unwieldy things that are lovingly unveiled at the annual corporate jamboree and then quietly ignored by the workforce for the rest of the year. Even the smallest project can benefit from one. A good vision statement will:

  • Ensure that we have a common agreement on where we want to go before we start.
  • Be used to elicit buy-in from people who will help us along the way.
  • Help to guide choices and decisions along the way.
  • Measure our progress from where we started.
  • Identify when we have reached our destination.

So, how do we create a vision that delivers these benefits?

Start with a Need

The vision expresses a requirement for something to be different, and we need to identify why such a change is necessary. By doing this, we can ensure that we have the right vision to fulfill the need.

“Let’s go into town.”
“I need to buy some batteries for the TV remote.”
“The local store sells batteries, too.”
“Okay, let’s go to the store.”

So, to have an effective vision, we should express why a change is needed and which needs it will fulfill. There are three major needs that drive most businesses:

  1. We can make more money (e.g., by increased sales).
  2. We can spend less (e.g., by reducing company headcount).
  3. We can reduce our exposure to risk (e.g., ensuring we fulfill compliancy requirements).

Be clear about which combination of these your vision is addressing, and state them in a language that the business will understand. Do this and you will find that business leaders are more likely to support your efforts. You should also ensure that these needs are aligned with the business direction that your organization has chosen. Look at other business visions or mission statements that are part of your company policy as guidance. Again, the business is more likely to support initiatives that support the company policy.
When writing our vision statement, we need to consider our audience and what we will use our vision statement for. Ensure that you write in language and terminology that will be understood by your audience – it’s no use to present a technical vision and expect business users to support it. The vision statement is also primarily for communication of our vision – keep it short and understandable, not too general and not with huge amounts of detail.

Describe your Future State

So far, we have only identified a need. What we need to do next is explain to our audience what they will get if they follow our vision.

“Why do we need batteries? The TV remote is okay.”
“If we have spare batteries in the cupboard, then in six months time, we won’t have to steal them from other remotes when the TV remote stops working.”

You may have spent many hours thinking through the issues and possible solutions, but your audience probably hasn’t. The easiest way for them to understand your vision is if you tell them what difference it will make to their business life. Your future state should cover three things:

Scope: If your vision is within a fixed scope, then ensure you point that out so your audience is clear about how much of the business will change.

Timescale: You need to tell your audience how long it will be before they notice a change. This does not need to be very detailed at this stage, but it should be reasonably accurate. You don’t want to create an expectation that you cannot fulfill.

The things that will be different today: This is not a detailed project plan, but you should capture the major outcomes of your vision. Ideally, you previously identified the things that will change in your needs as requiring improvement. The benefits of the vision should be clearly communicated. If these are hard financial figures, then this is the place that we should state them. For example, “Within six months, the purchasing department will see a reduction of invoice mismatches of around 10 percent. Within one year, this reduction will be sufficient to start reducing headcount within the purchasing team by one full-time employee.”

If you haven’t thought through the problem to the point where you can express a future state in terms of scope, timescale and outcomes, then you are also not at a point where you can effectively communicate the change. Developing a vision statement can be a useful tool for clarifying your own ideas.


Now for the Changes

Hopefully the audience has seen that there is an issue and has bought into the future state described. In order to move from the current problematic state into the future beneficial state, changes need to be made. Describe what changes are required to achieve the transition.

“If we are going to keep spare batteries for the TV remote, we need to spend some cash upfront, we need to stop other people from stealing them for use elsewhere, and we must ensure that we buy new ones as soon as we use the spares.”

This statement of changes should not be a detailed project plan. You need to describe the changes in the same level of detail that you used for the needs and the future state. The changes should be general enough for your audience to understand and detailed enough that they can see the major tasks that need to be undertaken.

Make it Memorable

So far, the one thing that has been missing from all of our work is that one memorable statement that our audience can take away with them when they leave. Something that we can use if asked:

“So what is your vision all about?”
“To always have a working TV remote.”

Look back over the issues that will be solved, the things that will be different in the future and the changes that will need to be made. Try to encapsulate the main idea in a single statement that is short, easily understandable and good for communication. It’s okay if the statement doesn’t tell the whole story – our total vision statement will be more than just this one phrase.

Putting it All Together

A complete vision statement is a combination of all of these pieces that we have documented. Create a document that tells a story to your audience:

“We need to make a change because there is a current problem …”
“My vision is ...”
“If we make this change then at the end of … time you will see these differences …”
“In order to achieve these end results, we need to make the following changes …”

Now, we should have a vision statement that:

  • Ensures that we have a common agreement on where we want to go before we start,
  • Can be used to elicit buy-in from people who will help us along the way, and
  • Helps to inform choices and decisions along the way.

But how can it be use to measure our progress?

Keeping it Alive

If the vision statement is good enough, then the audience will have been persuaded to make changes and projects will have been developed from the vision. Because the vision identified current issues and how things would be different in the future, it is an easy task to translate these into critical success factors or key performance indicators for the project phases. By creating such measures and actively monitoring them, it is possible to measure progress from where we started and identify when we have reached our destination

However, businesses don’t stand still while we make our changes! Ensure that you have regular review sessions with the business users that supported the vision to check that the vision for the future is still valid and that it still supports the overall aims of the business.

Remember to refer back to the vision statement when decisions are required along the way or when new projects are initiated. The vision will have challenges and diversions, but without a clear statement to guide you, it’s easy for the ultimate goal to be lost. You may not achieve your vision in a single step, but you can ensure that each small step is in the right direction.

Finally, the work is done, the projects completed, changes have been made. You can now refer back to your vision statement, compare it with the new reality and say, we have arrived.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.