While vision is predominantly associated with business strategies, experiences as a technical leader suggest that it is equally significant in this role. A well-articulated vision can not only encourage innovation but also ensure team alignment towards common objectives. It offers the luxury of concentrating on the essential aspects before hastily seeking a solution. As technical leaders, there is a responsibility to guide the team in shaping the vision and, crucially, in bringing it to fruition. This article presents several practical examples of how vision can be employed as a strategic tool in the execution of elaborate, multi-year projects.
The discussion of vision is typically centered around the business context, where it represents an organization's desired future and defines what success looks like. Traditionally, this vision is created by executives to inspire their teams on the journey ahead. However, as a technical leader with extensive experience leading complex multi-year programs, it has become evident that creating clear visions is equally important in guiding projects along the right path. This significance is even more pronounced in our rapidly changing environment.
The shift towards agile software development has led to a decentralization of decision-making authority, empowering teams to make localized decisions. Thick design documentation and strict governance are giving way to leaner approaches, with just-enough documentation scattered across multiple stories.
While this agile and flexible approach is beneficial, ensuring that we are moving in the right direction and making decisions aligned with our aspirations can be a challenge, especially when overseeing large, geographically dispersed teams. Micro-management is not a practical solution. So, how do we ensure that our teams can proactively challenge the design if they are not aligned with the vision?
Focus on What is Important
In the context of a digital application modernization program, a technical leader faced challenges when tasked with guiding the project. The client had previously experimented with technical spikes but achieved no conclusive outcomes after months of effort. Feeling uncertain, the client sought guidance.
Upon reviewing the technical spikes, the technical leader found them intriguing but lacking elegance due to technological constraints and the client's IT environment. Despite conducting workshops and engaging with stakeholders, no substantial progress was made. It was during this difficult phase that a colleague from IBM reminded the technical leader to ask the fundamental question: "why?"
This realization was transformative. The team swiftly drafted vision statements, capturing the client's aspirations. These statements focused on resilience, protecting the core business, composability, easy deployment, scalable productivity, and speed of delivery. Aligning with this vision, it became clear that many of the technical spikes were irrelevant. They were searching for solutions to non-existent problems. The team decided to put these technical spikes on hold and defined the necessary capabilities and building blocks to realize the vision.
A detailed technical roadmap was created, outlining milestones, activities, and team accountabilities. This roadmap became the guiding blueprint for the project. Over the course of two years, the technical leader successfully led the client's digital transformation journey, introducing micro-frontend and micro-service architecture, DevOps practices, and agile software development. Throughout the process, the vision was consistently reiterated to remind everyone of the shared aspirations.
This experience taught the technical leader the power of adopting a vision within the realm of IT architecture. Since then, they have embraced incorporating vision in subsequent projects. This approach has proven effective in resolving conflicts and aligning stakeholders towards shared goals. The technical leader has also learned the importance of not rushing to a technical solution without first understanding the underlying purpose, no matter how intriguing it may appear.
Co-Create and Execute a Vision
Traditionally, projects follow a top-down approach, where the vision is defined by higher-level stakeholders, and detailed design instructions are cascaded down. However, in this process, the vision often loses its significance by the time it reaches the implementation team. The primary focus becomes adhering to detailed instructions rather than staying aligned with the overall vision. This governance-driven approach can be rigid and inefficient. While agile software development provides flexibility, ensuring governance can be challenging due to the fast pace of work, potentially leading to a loss of sight on the overarching vision.
To address this, it is crucial to involve the entire team in co-creating the vision. This becomes especially important during the execution phase. The vision should guide the team towards the desired direction, and its creation should be a collective effort. Although an individual may initiate the vision, the final version should be the result of collaboration. By the time the vision is formally announced, the team should already have a clear understanding of it.
While it is essential to gain buy-in from senior stakeholders, it is equally important to obtain buy-in from the teams responsible for delivering the vision. The best governance practice is to ensure that everyone comprehends the intended destination.
The vision should be communicated effectively using concise and engaging methods. Feedback from the team should be incorporated to refine and improve the vision. A technical roadmap can be developed to translate the vision into actionable steps. By involving the team in the creation and execution of the vision, a sense of ownership and alignment can be fostered.
In conclusion, embracing the power of vision and mission has resulted in significant successes across various projects. When approaching new projects, technical leaders ensure that the vision is clearly understood by everyone involved, fostering active thinking instead of passive instruction-following. The team is encouraged to challenge the design bravely, and efforts are focused on activities that align with the vision. By leveraging the power of vision, technical leaders connect and engage with individuals at all levels, driving the project towards its desired outcome.