It was a cold night at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and I was thankful to be in a warm theater. The cast of (500) Days of Summer, a quirky, non-chronological romantic comedy, was fielding questions after the movie’s premiere. Actress Zooey Deschanel, TV’s New Girl, who portrayed Summer in the film, was asked how she got involved in the project. She stepped up to the mic and spoke about her first meeting with the film’s director. “He has like this roll under his arm… and he rolls it out…,” said Deschanel. “…he has made a timeline, like a beautiful timeline of this story…. It was such a wonderful way of showing me how the movie was going to work,” she explained. “And I was like, ‘I just definitely should work with this man.’”
That director was my brother, Marc Webb. He still talks to me, despite having gone on to make big summer movies like The Amazing Spider-Man. Over the years, we’ve often shared perspectives about each other’s work. As it turns out, there are a lot of similarities between film direction and the project management work I do for Carbon Design Group, a product design and development consultancy. Both roles require keeping a big-picture view while not losing sight of the details, fostering seamless collaboration with different departments, and, of course, staying on time and under budget. But what stands out most to me is a key difference. In film, a director’s vision—equal parts insight, dream, and passion—is critical to creating a film that engages audiences and generates profits. It was a strong vision that convinced Deschanel to sign on. Why not apply the vision concept to project management?
Of course the film industry does not own the concept of vision. Vision statements are found throughout the corporate and nonprofit world, proudly displayed on company “about” pages where they may or may not trickle down into the day-to-day lives of management and employees. Project management in particular has not traditionally been a vision-driven role. Typically project management—and even business leadership—gets bogged down with logistics, cat herding, and firefighting. I contend that, by guiding projects with a clear project vision, traditional project management can be elevated to Project Direction, and, in so doing, achieve better results.
In my experience, the vision can come from the client, team members, or any combination thereof. The most successful projects I’ve seen were driven by a clear vision. I’m not suggesting that project managers suddenly become visionaries in their own right, but we can raise the level of our team’s work by acting as stewards of the vision.
You might ask, “Isn’t a vision just a project goal?” Absolutely not. Just as a vision in film is used to connect various elements of a film, enabling them to work in harmony, the vision in projects must be used to connect the goal and deliverables to the project’s purpose. The project vision answers the question of why you are doing the project while the project goal answers the question of what the project is going to do. Author Simon Sinek spoke eloquently in his TED talk about the power of why. "Why" is what differentiates great companies from those that just focus on what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. The same goes for great project teams. Connecting teams to a project’s greater purpose—its vision—creates the kind of drive and passion that no Gantt chart can ever replicate. As Sinek says, “…if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”
The vision acts as a guide over the course of a project and unites people in their beliefs. From the project sponsor, to team members, to the end user, great products are driven by a vision for how they will make the world—or at least the user’s world—a better place. If you are working on a project and the goal of the project is to create a new cell phone, there is very little excitement in making yet another mobile phone. The message is much greater when you get to the passion and energy of why this new mobile phone is unique and important. Think of the step from a mobile phone to a smartphone. A team can get excited about working on a project that is about expanding people’s universe by connecting them to their friends, colleagues, and information in a whole new way.
It is time to step up your game. It is time to inspire your team to reach new heights and achieve better results. It is time to stop project managing and start Project Directing.
—Jim Webb is lead project director at Carbon Design Group, a product design and development consultancy. With over 16 years of experience in product development, he enjoys leading talented teams as they create great products.
[Director: Shots Studio via Shutterstock]