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.
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
Make it simple
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
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?
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
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.
You’ll also want to consider elements of the project charter and more. For a list of those, have a look at the guide Mission Controlled: the 5-Step Guide to Planning Projects. You’ll also discover the next steps after creating your guiding light for big and small projects – to plan effectively.