Who Owns Your Project's Vision?

Think about a current large-scale project going on in your organization. Who owns the vision? Is it the project manager? The program manager? The executive sponsor? The stakeholders? All of the above? Or none of the above?

Years ago, a few forward-thinking people in an agency I worked in created the concept of a "vision lead" for projects. The concept was that this person might play any role on the project, from creative to user experience to delivery management to development, but would be charged with carrying the torch for the vision—not the strategy, not the tactics, not the goals—the vision. That person would essentially be a proxy for the end customer of the web site, feature, or application. That vision lead would be constantly asking, on behalf of that customer, "Are you giving me what I need? Or are you giving me what you think I need? Or what you think you can build?"

There are inescapable realities in every project—time, budget, resources—that make it necessary to limit scope or compromise on features. But when ownership of the vision is decentralized and no one person is responsible for seeing the forest rather than the trees, it's easy to lose the way and end up delivering something that may meet the budget and the schedule but loses the spirit.

UPDATE 7/4/11

Returning to the topic of vision leaders, it turns out Mark Zuckerberg supports a similar model within the Facebook organization. In an interview with the Seattle Times, he talks about project leaders coming from various disciplines—engineering, project management, design—and says, "I think that's good, a good diversity."

Consultant, Diplomat, Therapist

Of all the skills a consultant brings to the table, sometimes the actual discipline for which you've been hired is the least important.

I have been a consultant, first in an agency, then on my own, for five years. In that time, I've worked in a number of companies, from non-profits to Fortune 100s. When a company brings in an agency or consultant, it's usually because they don't have the available resources or the skills in-house. What may surprise though, is how often that skill gap is not in technical skills or design skills or project management and delivery—or is not only in those, anyway—but in communication. Often I have been in the position of introducing one member of a company to another member of a company—literally being the liaison who makes the connections between organizationally separated (and sometimes even geographically separated) teams with common interests and need for shared outcomes but no organizational structure or incentives for collaboration.

Sometimes those distances are enforced by the virtual walls that silo different areas of an organization—IT from marketing is a typical example. Take a legacy of non-communication, add a failed project or two (refer back to that non-communication), and an ever-widening gap of mistrust opens up within the organization and the consultant ends up being the diplomat who helps the factions reach a successful resolution.

When one area of an organization feels under-represented at the table and is stuck working with outdated tools and processes, another important role a consultant can play is to simply listen. I have spent many hours with employees who are just grateful to have someone to describe their situation to and finally feel as though they've found a sympathetic ear. My job, of course, is not just to listen, but to document and plan and work with the other side as well as my consulting colleagues to create solutions that address not just the technical or procedural issues but the communication issues within their companies. When a client cries to see you leave at the end of a project, you know that consulting is as much about organizational psychology as it is about implementing new features, tools, or websites.

Psst! Wanna Hear a Secret?

Over the past few years, seemingly out of nowhere, there has arisen a new discipline devoted to the concept of having a strategy around the content on your site or in your publication. There are conferences devoted to content strategy, books being published, blog posts being written, and careers being built around it.

But here's a little secret for you. Ready? Content strategy is nothing new.

Shocking, isn't it?

The fact is that the very same goals—putting the right content in front of the right audience at the right time—were just as valid in an analog as a digital world. In fact, when you think about it, storytellers in the oral tradition spinning yarns around the campfire had to be just as conscious of who their audience was, what the audience wanted to hear, and how it could be presented in the most engaging and memorable way.

Think of your favorite book or magazine. For that publication to exist, someone had to

  • Identify an audience
  • Select a topic/theme/point of view/personality
  • Source or develop content
  • Work with designers to make it the presentation attractive and readable
  • Determine length, format, presentation of the stories
  • Make content easy to find (add a TOC or an index)
  • Oversee production
  • Publish it

Sound familiar? Change magazine to web site and you have the breeding ground for a whole new crop of people who now have a spiffy new title. But some of us have been doing it all along.