Creating a shared vision with a project team

by Peg Thoms

HUNDREDS OF BOOKS and articles have been written on “vision,” usually describing it as a strategy used primarily by transformational leaders. But it is also a useful tool for project teams and has some practical applications. Unfortunately despite being widely discussed, the concept of vision is neither well understood nor well utilized by organizations.

What is Shared Vision? Basically a vision is a positive mental image of the future. Many of us have our own visions of the future, which may include relationships, material possessions, and our preferred environment. Typically, when we talk about organizational visions, we really mean the vision of the leader of the organization. The leader's vision drives his or her behavior, which then drives the followers’ response.

Researchers have begun to find evidence that an effective vision does lead to positive organizational outcomes. Two recent studies found a strong relationship between the existence of a corporate vision and performance measures like profitability and productivity. Many other authors have reported increased job satisfaction, commitment, and loyalty In studies that look at the behavior of successful leaders, one common characteristic is a positive vision of the future of their organizations.


By contrast, a shared vision refers to an image that a group of people—for example, a project team—hold in common, an image of how the project will look, work, and be received by the customers when it is completed. Technically, it is unlikely that all of the people in a group will have exactly the same mental image, but it will be similar if the vision is developed as a group.

Development of a shared vision is not a difficult process, but many project teams don't take the time to do it. It's quite common for a team to discuss a new assignment in practical terms, outlining the requirements, discussing trends and barriers, and developing a plan and time frame, but few project teams take the time as a group to articulate an idealistic vision of the project. Individuals within the team may have their own images of the project, but those images may never be shared with the others. This lack of shared vision limits the scope of the project and may cause problems if team members’ images conflict with each other. When a project team develops and effectively uses a shared vision, they can expect better coordination of the various tasks, stronger commitment to the project, a higher level of satisfaction among team members, and a better quality project that is better received by the project customers.

Called “mapping” or “clustering,” this discussion exercise asks team members to list every aspect of a project that should be included in the vision statement

Called “mapping” or “clustering,” this discussion exercise asks team members to list every aspect of a project that should be included in the vision statement.

Many organizations have one long sentence that is referred to as the vision statement. These statements are often deliberately ambiguous. Employees may see them as superficial “feel good” sentences without much meaning. But an effective vision goes beyond a single statement and provides clear direction for members of a project team. A vision should contain enough information to motivate team members and provide direction for day-to-day work activity It should describe, in general terms, what the project will look, sound, feel, taste, and smell like when it is done and how people will react to it and use it. It should be optimistic, even idealistic.

Developing a Shared Vision. A shared vision can be developed through a group exercise that encourages people to think broadly and idealistically about the project outcomes. Typically, members of a project team know that they have been chosen for a project before the first meeting. The first meeting of the team can be used to explain the assignment and the objectives of the organization in forming the project team. At the first meeting, the project manager should let the team members know that they will meet again in a few days to create a vision of the project. Expect some cynicism. The media and many leaders have so overused the word vision that some people may expect the exercise to be fruitless. Explain how the vision will be used and give examples of the effective use of vision on other project teams. One example: the team of community leaders that put together the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. That team had a number of difficult barriers, but their shared vision of the olympics and a transformed city inspired them to achieve the vision. The outcome wasn't perfect—by their nature, visions are hardly ever fully achieved—but it was a great success for Atlanta.

Mapping. During the follow-up meeting, begin creating the shared vision of the project. Choose a comfortable location for the meeting. Keep the meeting informal. Make sure that the climate is safe, friendly, and collegial.

The first stage of the exercise is to encourage team members to think broadly and to include all of the important aspects of the project in their image of the future. This activity is sometimes called “mapping” or “clustering.” Put the name of the project in the center of a large board or flipchart and ask the team to list every aspect of the project that should be included in the vision. Examples of some of the aspects that you can expect them to list would include finances, timing, customers, technical characteristics, and team performance. Whoever is leading the exercise may need to list some of the aspects of the project in order to get the ball rolling and may want to add more after the group runs out of ideas. As various aspects of the project go on the board, team members will think of other related aspects. Use a cobweb approach such as in the example to list these aspects.

“Wouldn't It Be Great If…” The second activity involves generating a series of statements for each aspect of the project that begin with the phrase “Wouldn't it be great if…” You may need to give some examples so that the team understands what you expect. For instance, “Wouldn't it be great if the budget for the project was unlimited,” or “Wouldn't it be great if we finished the project two months early,” or “Wouldn't it be great if we could complete the project with the equipment we have now.” Encourage the team to forget about realistic barriers and limitations and to have fun with this activity. Don't allow anyone to begin throwing out comments like, “Get serious,” or “Why don't we just wish for Martians to fly down and do it for us,” or “It will never happen.” Approach the activity as if anything is possible—which may be true! Anecdotal evidence suggests that just about anything can be done if a group of people values a vision and commits to it.

Fine-Tuning the Vision. You may want to take a break at this point. When team members come back from the break, you should expect that there has been some discussion about the statements that were generated earlier. Now ask the team to consider which of the statements should be adopted for the project. For example, if it was suggested that it would be great if every customer accepted and used the project product, ask the group if they agree that this would be an ideal goal for the team. “It can never happen,” is not a good reason to drop a statement. A vision should be challenging as well as attainable. The statements that remain will make up the core of the vision. When you complete this activity, you will have a list of 15 to 20 idealistic goals for the project.

Following a recent successful visioning exercise, one team member said, “This can't be our vision because we haven't voted on it yet.” This is a common misconception. The statements that make up the core of the vision do not have to be determined by majority vote. If it took a majority vote to accomplish great things, very little would ever be done. However, it is important to make sure that the statements included in the shared vision are consistent.

Some individuals on project teams will adopt one or more of the statements as their own (with or without group agreement) and drive the accomplishment of that goal. If that goal is consistent with the shared vision, this behavior can add value to project outcomes. For example, some members of a team of physicians suggested that it would be great if doctors began making house calls. A few of the other physicians believed that it was too unrealistic and refused to include it in the vision. Yet one of the physicians had already incorporated house calls into his personal vision of the organization and would try to make them a reality A few of these leaders will emerge on each project team and take ownership of some of the more difficult aspects of the project. Leaders serve as examples of what is possible and motivate the other team members.

Pulling It Together. Finally, ask each team member to imagine what it would be like if they could make each of the goals a reality. It might help if they close their eyes. Tell them to imagine that all the wouldn't-it-be-great-if statements were true. Ask them to imagine the reactions of their customers when they see the final product of the project team. Ask them to imagine the project at completion. Ask them to think about how they will feel, what they will see, what they will hear.

This exercise will take approximately three to four hours depending on the size of the team and the willingness of team members to participate. Then the team will need another break in order to let the team members begin processing the vision and think about how they can achieve it. The human mind needs time to incubate ideas. The amount of time needed will depend on the personalities of the team members. For example, introverts will be exhausted by the group exercise and will need time to recover and consider what was developed and to process ideas on their own. Extroverts, on the other hand, will be energized by the group exercise and want to continue immediately. The person leading the group will have to find the right balance for the group. It may be helpful to ask people to think about how to accomplish each goal and come back the next day with some ideas about strategy. Encourage the team members who want (and may need) to talk between the meetings and remember to give them time to add things to the list at the beginning of the next meeting.

Developing a Project Strategy. Now it's time to begin developing a strategy to achieve the vision. The next meeting should begin with a brief review of the articulated shared vision. Taking one statement at a time, ask the team to begin developing strategies to make the statement a reality For example, you might ask them to begin developing some specific strategies that would help the group achieve the statement “It would be great if every customer accepted and used the finished product.” Some of the suggestions might include inviting customers to meet with the team once a month, inviting customers to work on the project team, and conducting regular briefing and feedback sessions with the customers.

It's important to encourage the team to develop specific strategies rather than changing the vision. In other words, if a team member says, “That will never happen. Let's just try to get most of the customers to use it.” The leader should say, “No, we have set this as our goal. Let's make a real effort to achieve it.”

This process will take several hours if done by the entire team. You may want to divide a large project group into smaller units to develop the specific strategies. This strategy development can be done as part of the general project planning. Assigning individual team members to be responsible for implementing each strategy will add accountability. Put the vision, the strategies, and the name of the responsible team member in writing and make sure that everyone has a copy. As the project leader tracks project target dates, the specific strategies should also be monitored. To put it another way, if the project team is not using the strategies that will achieve the vision, the manager needs to take some action.

Communicating the Shared Vision. Communicating the vision involves more than just giving a copy of the vision statement to each team member. When we make public commitments, we are more likely to keep them. Copies of the vision statement should be given to members of senior management of the organization, to customers, and to departments that will provide project support. The project team's constituents will build expectations consistent with the vision and may even provide some suggestions regarding the vision and the project strategy.

The vision needs to be discussed, or at least referred to, in every meeting of the team. If people spend hours developing a vision and then believe that they are “off the hook,” the vision will have little impact and team members will continue to see the process as a waste of their time. (Or, if the vision is challenging, some team members might want the group to forget about it.) A shared vision of a project is a tool and must be used after it is developed.

Vision as a Motivational Tool. The vision can be used by the project leader and team members to motivate the team when difficult aspects of the project arise. It serves as a psychological contract between the organization, the team members, and the project manager. Team members may tell each other to “remember what we are trying to achieve here!” and “think about the potential outcomes!” The team may need to be reminded that they are capable of achieving the vision if they use the strategies they developed. The vision also provides direction. During the slow periods of the project, when some of the work may become tedious, the vision can be used to clarify the objectives—it shows where the team is headed, and reminds them of what they agreed to do. A shared vision can also give the project team a competitive edge in a very competitive world. ■

Peg Thoms, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in the School of Business, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, is an author and consultant on leadership development, self-managed teams, and organizational vision.

PM Network • January 1997



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