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April 29, 2012

Creating Shared Vision

In my blog post, “The Nine Keys to SharePoint Success” I called out Shared Vision as the first key activity – in part because it’s one of the first things in the process and in part because it’s so often missed. In this blog post we’ll delve into what shared vision is, why it’s critical, and some techniques for how to build it.

Defining Shared Vision

We all like to believe we’re going to build the same solution but invariably there will be a conversation where your understanding and the understanding of someone else on the team differ. Clearly they’re wrong – or are they? One of the most difficult things we do is to reach a shared understanding with humans that have completely different experiences, desires, and ways of thinking than we do.

Our communication is based on notoriously bad language where words don’t have the same meaning for two people – and in some cases the words can have opposite meanings depending on their use. Consider the word dust. As a verb it can mean to cover with fine particles – as in dusting a donut with powdered sugar. It can also mean to remove fine particles (dust) from a surface.

A little closer to home I often hear people say that they’re using SharePoint for collaboration but when I press them as to what that means I’m often presented with blank stares. When I suggest that one definition is “to conspire with the enemy” I am shown shock – right before the awareness sets in that they don’t understand what they mean by collaboration and should get details.

Why Shared Vision?

At some level we’ve come to expect that we won’t understand exactly what someone else is talking about. However, we fail to recognize how much energy is wasted by the lack of alignment. Alignment is what happens when we’re pulling in exactly the same direction. Alignment can only be had when we know and agree to the same goal.

Consider the idea of a bon fire that can light up 30 feet – maybe. Now consider a lighthouse beacon that can be seen for 30 nautical miles (~35 miles) – with roughly the same amount of light energy. Taking the light analogy to the extreme, a laser (which is simply focused light) can be seen bouncing back from the moon – slightly more than 35 miles.

There is not a small percentage of better results that are realized through alignment – the differences are spectacular.

Building Shared Vision

Shared Vision may be hard to generate and important to get – but creating a shared vision seems particularly challenging in SharePoint. SharePoint’s flexibility is – in this case – its curse. Because you can do so much with SharePoint – and in so many different ways, it’s difficult to get everyone to agree on the same objectives – solved in the same way. However, it’s not impossible. It can be done if you focus on three things: Personas, Use Cases, and Visual Design.


If you’ve not been close to marketing you may not have heard of a persona, it’s a description of a class or type of user. Marketing folks use a persona to get a clear understanding of the people they’re targeting their efforts to – you can use a set of personas to understand the different types of users that you’re supporting. Personas should be created with a name (like Sally Sales, Sam Shipping, etc.), a picture, and a backstory. The photo (some stock photo that you acquire) and the backstory are easy to skip over but they’re important to help fill out the character of this person to make them less fictional and more “real” – Yes, create more fiction to make the person seem more real. Creating shared vision is layers. You must clearly understand the needs of the people that you’re serving to clearly articulate the goals of the solution. The backstory should include how many kids they have, their pets, and their hobbies. Again, the goal is to create the sense that this is a real person that you’re working with – not just some convenient label.

In most cases creating a handful of personas won’t be that hard for a group with experience in the organization. The biggest challenge will most frequently be filtering to the important personas and deciding when two or more personas can be merged. Ideally you won’t have more than 4 – 6 personas, any more than that and you may have a hard time balancing too many competing personas.

Use Cases

Once you know the “who” of the solution, you’ll want to figure out the “what.” Use cases are what the users will – and won’t be able to do with the system. The most popular cases should be mapped out – and those which the key stakeholders believe are important. If you don’t document it as a use case, it’s not something guaranteed to be in the final solution.

It’s not just the “happy path” use cases that should be considered, it’s important to create “negative” use cases where items are supposed to fail due to business rules, technical limitations, or security. Having the negative use cases makes it easier for people to completely conceptualize what they’re doing. Research has proven that having folks actively try to identify potential areas of failure improves the probable success rate for a project – so don’t be stingy with the time to understand the negative cases.

Visual Design

Visual design is the one area of Shared Vision that most organizations believe they’ve got down. The organization may create wireframes to discuss the placeholders for content. Typically mockups are created to get the basic look and feel, however, one area that most organizations fall down is in the development of prototypes.

Mockups are good at showing the pages that they depict but all too often organizations only do mockups for a handful of pages – way too few to be able to articulate the way that users will navigate the system – and complete their use cases. By leveraging prototypes it’s possible to demonstrate the actual system behavior that will happen for different use cases. By demonstrating the actual use it becomes easier to identify misunderstandings and to coalesce around a single understanding.

Bringing Vision into Focus

Reaching a shared vision is difficult – but it’s just a process of taking the right steps to drive understanding. The better you execute a set of simple steps the more you’ll end up with the same shared vision. If you want to learn more about Shared Vision or the other 8 keys to success check out the DVD.

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