Soul power: the importance of a project’s “soul”

By: Bryce Blilie
In the consulting world, you are often brought on to a project where the vision and goal have already been determined and masterminded. The client brings on development resources to execute the vision and project management resources to manage and maintain momentum. Unfortunately, the soul of a project, or its purpose and meaning to the organization, can be lost in the myriad of details and timelines. The concept of project execution is mired in a factory-like mechanical state of planning and meeting deadlines.
So what makes up the “soul” of a project anyways? While there are multiple ways to define it, the soul of project is made up of the vision shared by the person(s) responsible for communicating the idea to the organization and how the members of the project perceive this vision. If the vision is unclear, contradicts itself, or is unfinished, visualizing and delivering success becomes incrementally more difficult and deadlines become more and more meaningless.
The soul of a project isn’t just a mission statement or the title of the project charter document. It’s not the subject line of a companywide email or memo, and it’s not a headline on the homepage of the company Intranet. It’s the energy and excitement of the project sponsor, it’s communicated around water coolers, at happy hour or over lunch, it’s written all over the face of the person or people responsible for initiating the vision, and it’s contagious.
When a project kicks off, the energy is similar to what the crowd and players experience just before a sporting event. Project team members and stakeholders alike are inspired by the possibility that this project could be, and can be, the best one yet. Tension evolves into activity and expectations as the work breakdown structure begins to take shape. Past project failures and successes are on everyone’s minds, but the opportunity to “do it right” takes hold. All interested parties begin to imagine what the soul of the project looks like, what it feels like and what it means to deliver.
It’s at this critical moment when the project sponsor or visionary is needed most. The confluence of high energy and flexible, manageable expectations is at its peak. Nothing has yet failed and there are no regrets or restarts. The soul of a project will take its truest form at this time — team members and managers will align their goals and expectations as everyone maintains hope and optimism. If the vision is not communicated or is absent altogether, the project will experience a “false start.” It may begin on time and milestones may be met, but the void of enthusiasm and positive attitudes will begin to decay any actual progress being made and team members will begin to question and resent the stated goals.
A key component in communicating the soul of a project is clarity. When the vision is clear, it is easily understood and communicated amongst team members and to those outside of the project. The soul of the project then becomes a realization experienced by people who are responsible for delivering the project and by those observing its progression. It’s shared almost imperceptibly amongst business analysts, project managers, developers and hardware technicians and makes everyone feel like what they’re doing is important and helpful to the bottom line. The people involved aren’t just following through on their responsibilities to their direct reports and managers, they’re doing real work with rewarding outcomes and high risk consequences.
When a project has a soul, it has a purpose beyond that of the Gantt and burndown charts, beyond the code repository and servers, beyond the support desk and project management office. It has a unique and special meaning to the people involved and to the organization overall, and it has better than a fighting chance to succeed.