Define your project's vision with this exercise

The Vision Box exercise is a powerful way to help define the vision of the ultimate product, motivate the project team, and generate enthusiasm among stakeholders.

As every project manager learns, change is difficult. Executives, stakeholders, and potential users resist change for all sorts of personal, political, and emotional reasons.

The Windows guru is unlikely to champion the migration to Linux, and the resident SAP master-of-the-universe probably won't wave the flag for the switch to Oracle. When people have reputations, livelihoods, and self-esteem at stake, resistance to change should be expected, and project managers must have a toolkit that enables them to become agents of change.

By now, every project manager is familiar with the famous "elevator pitch"-- the short, pithy paragraph that describes your project concisely and compellingly, just in case the CEO corners you in the elevator and asks, "What are you guys building, anyway?"

The elevator pitch became famous during the dot-com boom, when venture capitalists were so busy listening to appeals for funding that entrepreneurs only got a few minutes to explain their initial business plan, and it needed to be convincing and unique.

The ability to describe the features, benefits, and business value of a project quickly and persuasively is a powerful marketing and motivational tool.

In the world of agile project management, there's a well-known technique for developing a marketing message that can drive the product development effort for your project. The Vision Box exercise, championed by Agile Manifesto signatory Jim Highsmith, is a simple and easy to implement process that is extraordinarily powerful and can be adopted by agile or traditional project teams.

Read my interview with Highsmith about light methodologies.)

The Vision Box exercise is typically employed at the start of a new project. It's usually run as a facilitated session with members of the executive team, as well as a broad spectrum of participants from the stakeholder and user community. The basic concept is straightforward: If your new product was marketed in a box, like cereal or consumer electronics, what would be the marketing copy on the box? What product features, benefits, and attributes would you highlight on the box that would attract shoppers and convince them to buy your product?

Like an expanded version of the elevator pitch, the Vision Box exercise aims to construct a convincing story in a crisp and visual manner, emphasizing the project’s unique benefits and avoiding long, technical descriptions in favor of snappy headlines. The exercise can result in a product name, a graphic that would highlight the wonderful characteristics of the new product, and some catchy phrases that encapsulate the benefits of using your proposed invention.

Proponents of the Vision Box exercise conduct the meetings similar to brainstorming sessions, facilitating the group as they come up with a list of possible features and benefits to be included on this imaginary product package. It's common for the group to digress into either very vague or very technical descriptions based on their expertise and point of view. When facilitating the Vision Box exercise, you should guide the team away from bits and bytes and towards marketing statements that sum up the product's attractive features and inspire users and stakeholders to support, and even anticipate, the product's creation.

One technique used to guide this exercise is the old journalism advice of asking Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • Who? By guiding the team to describe the audience for this product, you help clarify the target customer and ensure that the language used is intended for that audience rather than for the technical team.
  • What? By describing what the product is, you spell out some of the look and feel questions that accompany every IT effort.
  • When? This question begins the process of project scheduling by illuminating the stakeholders’ time expectations regarding the project. It also helps you dig into their expectations by defining the circumstances in which the new product would be used.
  • Where? This question helps the team articulate the scope of the project. For instance, will the new product be used by everyone in the organization, or only in the tax department, or somewhere in between?
  • Why? This is the most critical question to answer. Why would the users and stakeholders make the painful effort to change their existing habits and migrate to this new product? This question is also expanded to explain why you're developing this particular product as opposed to another one that some stakeholders may champion, or that might be bought off the shelf in, well, a package.
One reason why Vision Box exercises are so successful at defining a project's vision is because they are fun and engaging. I've found that, unlike boring requirements definition efforts (which can be like pulling teeth), the Vision Box exercise gets folks to participate. One problem you'll likely encounter is that you'll get too much information, which means a good portion of the exercise is spent prioritizing and focusing the ideas.

By using the product box metaphor, it helps the team understand that every idea can't be represented, and that, in order to catch the consumer's eye, they need to highlight the three or four best, most persuasive benefits on the imaginary box. The outcome of this exercise is usually a sheet of flip-chart paper with a mockup of the product box, full of big stars and exploding graphics containing the concise and appealing statements that will compel users to want the product.

Besides the obvious benefit of helping the group define their vision of the ultimate product and express their expectations in non-technical language, the ensuing vision is a powerful force for motivating the project team that will develop the new solution. Detailed product requirements and functional specifications can often be overwhelming, and the use of a simple vision can help keep your effort on track and restrain developers from costly digressions into gold-plated development or "feature-itis".

By helping developers and stakeholders keep their eyes on the prize, the Vision Box exercise can help avoid product bloat and scope creep. By referring stakeholders and your project team back to the Vision Box, you can protect against the never-ending project and remind everyone why you started this effort in the first place.
Hopefully, by doing the Vision Box exercise, you can create enthusiasm and anticipation among your stakeholders, inspire your project teams to creative heights, and keep the project effort focused on the elements that generate the most business value.