Project Management Institute

Creating a visual reality for your project team

Purpose and Objective

This paper has been prepared for presentation at the PMI 2000 Seminars and Symposium Technical Program in the “Communications in PM Track.” This paper acknowledges excellent reference provided by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and is intended to be supportive of the PMBOK® Guide. This paper focuses on and is directly related to the PMBOK® Guide Sections 2.4.1, Leading and 2.4.2 Communicating, both subsections of 2.4—Key General Management Skills. This paper is written to encourage the pervasive use of visuals within project teams to enhance communications beyond what words and actions alone can accomplish. Although we believe the use of visuals can have a significant impact throughout the entire life of the project, we believe it is particularly true in the early stages of the project such as Project Plan Development and in Scope Management in the Initiation, Scope Planning, and Scope Definition phases. Visuals can be used to your advantage initially to assist in the creation of project information. In addition and equally to your advantage, the visuals you develop to create the plan and gain team understanding can be used and reused for ongoing communications to the masses interested in your project.


The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the use of visual aids as an effective and useful technique to enhance the project manager’s ability to Lead and Communicate. The authors will share their experience regarding the use and power of illustrations to supplement and complement written words, not necessarily replace them.


The objective of this paper is to raise awareness, share a learned experience, and demonstrate how visuals can be extremely useful at various stages in the project. The PMBOK® Guide recognizes that general management skills provide much of the foundation for building project management skills. These skills are well documented in the general management literature, and their application is fundamentally the same on a project. The authors recognize the years of research into learning and learning styles. This discussion paper is not an attempt to redefine, or challenge generally accepted principles in the large field of communications but instead is meant to reinforce them.


In his well respected text on Project Management, Harold Kerzner indicates that a project manager may very well spend 90% or more of his or her time communicating—man is he bang on—although many project managers may argue that it takes a higher percentage of his or her day. If it’s not communicating with your Project Team, Stakeholders, or Suppliers you are probably talking yourself through come critical project issue. Think about it—if you are not engaged in direct communications with someone else—you are totally engaged with yourself trying to either understand an issue so you can then help everyone on your team understand it in the same way. The process and task of communication is like a heart beat—it just can’t stop!

Later in his text, Harold Kerzner indicates that the main business of project managers may be communications and that there appears to be a direct correlation between the project managers ability to manage the communications process and project performance. The authors of this paper agree and believe there is no more important time in a projects life cycle to communicate effectively that in the early stages during project initiation.

Today’s project professionals have at their disposal a multitude of tools, methods and techniques to bring to the project. In addition to methods and techniques, software applications can assist with decision-making, tracking, scheduling, reporting, risk management, etc., through all phases of a project. Even with all these tools at our disposal feeding us with cut and dried statistical data, today’s large-scale and multiple disciplined projects, can still lose track and fall off the straight and narrow. Yes, as managers we can flood the project review with data and statistics. Information abounds. Many project managers, however, miss out on a perhaps simple and often over-looked opportunity to enhance project communication and create a common vision for their project team. This is the utilization of visuals to create a visual reality for you and your team.

Visuals to Complement Written Words Alone

Visual aids can greatly enhance a presentation (Kerzner). Their advantages include:

Enlivening a presentation, which helps to capture and hold the interest of an audience.

Adding a visual dimension to an auditory one, which permits an audience to perceive a message through two separate senses, thereby strengthening the learning process.

Spelling out unfamiliar words by presenting pictures, diagrams, or objects and by portraying relations graphically, which helps in introducing material the is difficult or new.

Remaining in view much longer than oral statements can hang in the air, which can serve the same purpose as repetition in acquainting an audience with the unfamiliar and bringing back listeners who stray from the presentation.

Exhibit 1. Utilization of Visual Aids in Presentations and Workshops

Utilization of Visual Aids in Presentations and Workshops

Visuals during Project Scope Management (PMBOK® Guide 5.1 through 5.4)

Visuals are a very useful technique for the project manager and/or team to define scope. As discussed later in this paper, project objectives are not always clear at the start. As evidenced in Exhibit 1, a project manager can utilize visuals to begin defining the project specifics. A session can start with known in/out of scope items with in scope (in the box) and out of scope outside. Capture all the elements of the discussion and place those items that are in question in a separate list for later resolution and fit after a good portion of the scope has been defined. Group and normalize the areas in and out of scope.

Dependencies (Task, Organizational)

Using the visuals from the exercise above can assist you and the team to identify many of the organizational and task dependencies. Organizational dependencies will fall out of in and out of scope discussions. You will identify areas that are not directly within your project scope, but you will be dependent upon a group or organization providing for your project to be successful. Identify the intersection points on the diagram (e.g., number boxes, etc.), and then write up the details of the dependency in the project documentation to be sure everyone is clear and understands their role(s). In this way you create a visual reference as well as a words to back it up. Be sure to incorporate this work into your plan directly or in an appendix.

If a picture truly can say a thousand words, then utilization of effective visuals can greatly assist the project manager to create a common understanding in the early critical stages of the project.

A Discussion on Types of Communication Aids

As indicated previously, this paper recognizes the many tools, methods, and techniques available to the project team to enable the flow of project information. A representative collection is listed below:

Information Display—Data Charts, Tables, Flowcharts, Graphs, WBS, Organization Charts

Schedule Information—PERT, CPM, etc.

Exhibit 2. Mind Map Workshop Diagram

Mind Map Workshop Diagram

Pictures—Presentations, Photographs, Posters, Clip Art, Cartoons, Video, Slides

Tools or Techniques—Cause and Effect, Mind Map, Pareto

Applications—Examples include, but are not limited to PowerPoint®, VISIO®, Excel®, WORD®

Media—Flip Charts, Boards (Black and White); Overheads; Doodle Pads; Online (NetMeeting®); Web sites

The tool, method, or technique you will use depends upon your need and the type of situation you find yourself in. As this paper focuses on effective communication in the early stages of the project the authors experience would seem to indicate that the most useful visuals begin on either paper, whiteboards and flip charts, which when completed can be transferred to electronic form for reuse. Your experience will dictate what works best for you. From our experience the white board sessions allows for quick collaboration and editing while the team is engaged in the creative exercise. The application or electronic format you choose to transfer your visuals to is a personal preference, however, here are some suggested examples that work well:

VISIO® and other similar flow-charting tools work very well to capture and reuse work around process flow, data flow, etc.

PowerPoint® and other similar applications works well to capture the diagrams created to support your project and can be integrated easily into your finished documents or reused as individual communication aids (posters, handouts, etc.)

Mind Map applications and similar applications are useful to capture and structure minutes from sessions that can be readily reviewed and shared with those present or not in attendance. An example of a mind map exercise is below in Exhibit 2.

Bringing This Together With Some Examples

Recognizing When Visuals Might Help

We’ve all been there before—that pause in the meeting where you know the entire team is at an impasse in understanding. After minutes of redundant, circular conversations and raging debate, the team is still not “together” on the approach. As the project manager, meeting facilitator, and the person ultimately responsible for the outcome of the session where and what do you turn to? The productive return on investment from all this gathered talent is at risk and needs immediate focus to get communications back on track and in a fruitful direction quick.

In a situation and time like this, visuals can be very helpful to collect like thoughts and center the attention of a team. Moving to a diagram or picture can shift the thought process to another level. Filling the white space with concepts can help breakthrough “facts” and bring the creative thought process back to the table.

In some cases, everyone could actually be in violent agreement but have just not realized it yet. Each of us has a mental image of the point we attempt to convey and often can find it difficult to articulate our image with words alone. A picture or diagram typically starts a focus and can kindle the collective thought process. Exhibit 3 illustrates how you’re a teams Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) each bring their own discipline to the table and will naturally want to volunteer their information and perspective to a discussion. As a communicator and leader you need to facilitate the “thought dump,” the free flow of ideas and information (words, block diagrams, engineering drawings, etc.) while at the same time building upon each and linking relationships. The goal is to capture the thoughts and assemble them in such a way so as to formulate a common view of the subject discussion.

Exhibit 3. Anchor on Common Ground and Expand Understanding

Anchor on Common Ground and Expand Understanding

Getting It Started

But where do you start—how do you begin? In our experience it helps to begin with an anchor—some point or element of the discussion that everyone seems to be in agreement on or that there is a highest level of understanding for (from what you have been able to observe). This concept is illustrated in Exhibit 3—Anchor on Common Ground and Expand Understanding. The anchor you select could be the issue you are attempting to resolve (where you are coming from) and may begin the formation of the projects problem statement. Quite often a visual can begin from “today’s situation” or “what is currently reality.” Starting with simple circles and square figures (as a start) can assist you by forming relationships (arrows) between ideas (views) and can begin to focus a group and move it beyond an impasse. Once you have established a good anchor point, you’re in a better position to utilize that visual to build on. You may be able to at this point, hang discussion points off it and begin to evolve the visual (the focus of your discussion) pictorially to create a new “picture.” Circle entire areas of the visual as the area that the team is focusing on and expand it—identify areas that may need enhancing, replacing, etc.

The starting point once established allows the team to expand their collective understanding out from that point to create a new paradigm of understanding within the team. Without this common center ground of understanding, the project manager (facilitator) does not have a place to take the group back to when you get into “rat hole” discussions. Again, it’s like the forest-and-trees analogy, where at times a team or group can get so down into the branches that you need to be brought back to the top to refocus before once again plunging back down into the details (and of course you need to go into the detail to get the real work done).

Your Style and Two Different Approches

You and your team might be starting at the beginning and looking out to an end point. This is often the case when creating the initial project plan where you are defining goals, objectives, and scope. The tool or technique you choose to apply to a situation will change based upon a number of variables, for example:

Your personal control style (e.g., are you autocratic, democratic, allow uncontrolled debate)

Your comfort at facilitation and drawing visuals in an interactive forum (e.g., as kids we drew hundreds of pictures—but you may not be as comfortable today)

The size of your project or type of deliverable (e.g., modifying an existing application or creating a new replacement IT application)

How well the problem statement/requirement is defined and understood

The type of “product your project is creating” (e.g., a product you can put your hands on (space shuttle) or imbedded software code for a hardware item).

The approach you choose to create a visual will also depend upon your circumstances. For the purposes of this discussion paper, the authors have defined two approaches:

Prepared Visual—In this approach you complete all the work before hand and then present your concept to your audience (which can be advantageous where time is critical). You may not be presenting your visual as a done deal—but in this approach you generally know what message you want to leave (or begin with). This approach may be used to kick-start the process.

Collaborative Creation—This is a participative approach where you work with the team to create your visuals. This works well where you are not the subject expert or it’s a diverse solution requiring specialists from many areas. You and your team together must define and describe (with words and visuals) what type of end state you want. In this case, you want to capture a vision of an end state. This can be very difficult to do—if what you are creating is not something you can lay your hands on (like a new IT application or a proposed organization). It’s very important to understand the problem statement, the requirements statement or generally what you are trying to solve before you begin.

Exhibit 4. Prepared Visual to Support Common Understanding and Focus

Prepared Visual to Support Common Understanding and Focus

Exhibit 5. Collaborative Visual for Outsourcing Proposal

Collaborative Visual for Outsourcing Proposal

Prepared Visual

Exhibit 4 is an example of a Prepared Visual and displays a functional organizational diagram created as a prepared visual to assist the authors in an organizational realignment exercise some years back. This visual proved useful in creating a shared vision among a number of “individual” and “physically diverse” focused customer teams. The diagram fostered a successful initiative to realign an onsite and offsite service organization.

Collaborative Creation

Exhibit 5 is an example of a Collaborative Creation, prepared by a project team developing a solution description to be included in an outsource services proposal. The visual developed through several iterations beginning with white board diagramming and discussions was eventually completed in the following form for the proposal. The visual when complemented with words, leaves a powerful lasting message. This type of visual anchor can be reused throughout the project lifecycle to validate assumptions as the project evolves.

Summary and Conclusions

Using visuals, in a balanced way is a valuable technique to a project manager’s communication effort. The methods required to communicate a concept will change as the audience changes. Your communications may be written (formal or informal) or oral (formal or informal). Being creative with visuals, as a written technique may provide your team with the breakthrough or grounding required to move the project to a successful conclusion. Growing your communication skills is a continual process of improvement. Any technique is only as useful as it’s applied, so we recommend if you don’t already utilize visuals that you give it a try, stick to it and practice it over and over. There are many communication techniques available to the project manager and the more skills you can bring to the table the more options you can call upon to express or understand a point being made. Who knows, if one picture truly can say a 1,000 words, then perfecting the effective use of visuals could certainly save yourself allot of writing. At the very least complement your written words with effective visuals.


Project Management References

Harold Kerzner Ph.D. Project Management, A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, Sixth Edition.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). 2000 Edition—Exposure Draft. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Learning Process and Learning Styles References

Mind Map Web Site ( mindmap.html)

Learning Styles ( LS_Technology.html)

Learning Styles (

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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