How often have you been handed an assignment and plunged into it, then realized that you have an incomplete idea of what the end product is supposed to be? Have you struggled to finish something only to find yourself in an endless “re-do” loop? Have you ever been told by a manager or stakeholder, “I’m a little disappointed; that’s not really what I was expecting?”

As a project manager, did you have a revelation halfway through the project that the team doesn’t really know why they are doing the project and — even worse — each person has a different idea of what “done” should look like?

What’s at Stake? If you don’t have a clearly-articulated vision of the successful outcomes for your assignment or project, how will you ever know if you’re successful? In fact, how will you ever know if you’re even finished?

I’ve become much more productive since I learned to start every new assignment by saying, “Please tell me what success looks like on this assignment. What are the desired outcomes? What will we have accomplished at the end of this process? How will we know we have been successful?” At first, I got some blank stares. Over time, people admitted, “I knew you were going to ask me that, and I’m not sure what to say, but I know you need a vision to get started.” That’s OK — in fact, that’s a victory, because now you can start the conversation.

5 Steps to Envisioning Successful Outcomes

1. Explain what’s in it for them. “I’d like to ask a set of questions to get a clear picture of what you need, so that I can do it right the first time and not waste time on rewrites. If I can understand what success looks like, I can take us there.” Always start with the “WIIFM” — the “What’s In It For Me” factor. It ensures that people will listen and cooperate because you have their interests at heart.

2. Hold a conversation using open-ended questions to draw out the fullest picture of the desired end result. Keep asking in different ways until you get what you need.

  • What does success look like on this software project? What problems does this system solve? What’s your vision of how someone will use it when it’s finished?
  • What will we have accomplished by the end of this brainstorming session? How will we use what we learned in the session – where will we take it from here?
  • Who is the audience for this report? Is it meant to inform or persuade? What are the key ideas you want to get across? Are there any political sensitivities I should be aware of?
  • When I attend this all-campus conference, are you expecting that I’ll bring back specific information or talk to any particular individuals who are interested on our project?

Once you have the big picture, you can ask about the logistics, among them:

  • What is the due date?
  • Who needs to approve it?
  • What form or format are you looking for?
  • Who should I talk to for more information?

3. Send your notes after the meeting and ask for confirmation that you got it right. This ensures your grasp on the project, and it also calls out any gaps in logic or intent. It keeps misunderstandings to a minimum, especially as time, stress, and scope-creep cloud our recollections. Over the years, I’ve learned not to move forward until I have written agreement. We’re all much happier with the result.

4. Create a road map and plan. Now that you know “where we are” and “where we want to be,” you can determine the steps that will take you there. The size of the project will dictate the length and detail of the plan. Once again, this calls out any gaps in logic, timing, or resource allocation.

5. If there are others on your project, share the road map and plan. Explain the vision, the reasons for the project, and the desired outcomes. Hold a real dialogue; let everyone ask questions to see what you’ve missed. At the same time, you can uncover hidden objections or resistance from people who are not “on board.” Your project will be more successful when everyone can accept and articulate the vision.

“The secret of achievement is to hold a picture of a successful outcome in the mind.” –Henry David Thoreau

Now It’s Your Turn

Take a look at these blog posts for more information:

Share Your Perspective

What’s the best way to bring everyone into alignment with the shared vision? Do you have any special techniques that work for you?

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