Five years ago, I developed the Project Canvas Book inspired by the Business Model Canvas, a one-page template, developed a little over a decade ago by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, that today is used by millions of people around the globe.
I thought to myself: if they can summarize all the key elements of a business model on one slide, why should we not have the same for a project? Both Alex and Yves have become good friends, and have advised me in the design of the Project Canvas.
The Project Canvas is based on the premise that every project – regardless of the industry, the organization (profit or non-profit), the sector (public or private), or whether it is personal or professional – is composed of exactly the same elements, which determine whether the project is a success or failure. If individuals, leaders, and organizations focus on these elements and apply the techniques behind them, project success will almost be guaranteed.
Urgent Need to Simplify existing Project Management Methods
Porter’s Five Forces and value chain analysis help to make strategy a key area for every organization to apply. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG)’s Growth-Share Product Portfolio matrix, developed by BCG founder Bruce Henderson, helps us to understand product mix in a simple manner.
Widely used management disciplines are often linked to a few simple frameworks that can be easily understood, and applied, not only by managers but also by the majority of individuals.
These frameworks are some of the best known and most widely used in their domains thanks to the ability of their founders to simplify complex matters.
In contrast, project management methods have tended to be too complex to be easily understood and applied by non-experts.
The pivotal assumption of the project management methods has been that documenting every aspect of a project in detail will provide a high level of control of the planned activities during the implementation of the project. Many project managers end up producing massive numbers of documents and swathes of paperwork, leading to an overall feeling that the role was primarily administrative.
The elements that matter most to executives – the rationale of the project, the business case, and the delivery of the benefits to the organization – are often not the primary aspects of existing project management methodologies (note: there have been positive developments on this front with the new PMBoK v7 and Praxis, which I will cover in a future newsletter).
The Project Canvas
After studying hundreds of successful and failed projects, I have developed a simple tool – the Project Canvas – that can be applied by any individual, team, organization, or country.
The framework, which covers the basic principles and fundamentals of projects that everyone should know, is practical and easy to implement. It is a proven tool that will assist you in leading projects more successfully and in making your dreams a reality.
It is composed of 14 dimensions – the ones that research has proven to influence and determine project success. These are grouped into four major domains. Each domain, or area of expertise, has a specific weight in the success of a project, which is indicated by a percentage. Let’s look at them. nance that will ensure the project is resourced and delivered.
Domain 1: Why
The Why dimension covers the triggers and actual meaning of a project (the rationale and business case, and the purpose and passion), which will become the drivers once the project gets underway. The drivers are to obtain buy-in and resources (from the organization), to obtain attention and time from the executives, to obtain engagement from the members of the team, and to obtain support from the individuals impacted by the project.
1. Rationale and Business Case
All project management methodologies demand that projects always have a well-defined business case. It is a great exercise to learn about the alternatives and the project expected returns. Experience shows, however, that business cases have biases and subjective assumptions, especially concerning the financial benefits from the project, which often get inflated in order to make the project seem more attractive to the decision-makers.
2. Purpose and Passion
Two of the newer elements in the Project Canvas are purpose and passion. Besides having a rationale, a project should be linked to a higher purpose. Jim Collins and Jerry Poras, authors of the business classic Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, provided a useful definition of ‘purpose’, which we can adapt as follows:
A project’s purpose is its fundamental reason for being. An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the project’s work – it taps their idealistic motivations – and gets at the deeper reasons for a project’s existence beyond just making money.
Domain 2: Who
The Who domain relates to the executive sponsor and governance, and it addresses the elements of accountability and allocation of responsibilities. An organization or business has a chief executive in charge and is accountable for its operations. The same should happen with a project, in the role of the executive sponsor, who is the ultimately accountable person. Yet, more often than not, the role is either not understood or not performed consistently with the importance it has for the success of the project. Establishing a clear governance structure at the beginning of the initiative is essential too.
3. Executive Sponsor
Many projects start without it being decided who is ultimately accountable for their successful delivery. As projects tend to go across departments, business units and countries, they are often prone to ‘shared accountability and collective sponsorship.’ As a result, many executives feel responsible, yet no one is really accountable for driving the project to completion.
The executive sponsor, together with the project manager, should define the project governance. The governance in a project is represented by a project chart in which the various contributing roles and decision-making bodies are defined.
One of the most important bodies in a project is the steering committee, which is chaired by the executive sponsor and run by the project manager. The members and the frequency with which they meet often determine the importance the project has for the organization.
Domain 3: What, How & When
The What, How & When domain covers the fundamental elements that constitute the project. They can be split into technical areas and people-related elements. These are the project fundamentals: hard aspects (definition, design, plans, milestones, cost, risk and procurement) and soft aspects (motivation, skills, stakeholders, change and communication). Addressing all of the elements at the right time and with enough depth will increase the chances of project success.
Understanding and agreeing on what the project will consist of and deliver – the scope – is one of the raisons d’être of project management. Other terms for scope include specifications, detailed requirements, design, and functionality. The scope is the most important element in making an accurate estimation of the cost, duration, plan, and benefits of the project. Various tools can be used to try to determine what the outcome of the project will look like, yet this remains one of the most difficult tasks.
6. The Time
“Time is money”: this famous phrase, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, is an absolute in projects. The time is one of the major characteristics of projects in that, unless there is an articulated, compelling, official and publicly announced deadline, there is a good chance that the project will be delivered later than originally planned. Delays in projects mean, besides extra costs, a loss of benefits and expected revenues, both having a tremendous negative impact on the business case of the initiative. A project without a deadline should not be considered a project – better call it an experiment, an exploration of daily business activities.
Budget in projects is composed mostly of the time dedicated by the project resources. These mainly include the people working on the project plus all other investments (consultants, material, software, hardware, etc.) required to develop the scope of the project. Budget is, together with time and scope, the third main constraint in traditional project management. Without a budget, there is no project.
Ensuring that the outcome of the project meets the quality expectations is an integral part of project management, yet it is often overlooked or not a priority. Often teams focus on doing the work and leave the quality part to the end of the project when adjustments are most expensive.
9. Risk Management
Risk management is one of the most important techniques in project management and essential duty of the project manager. Bluntly, if a project fails, it is because the risks that caused the failure were either not identified or not mitigated on time by the project team.
Projects tend to have a novelty component; therefore, the need to hire external capabilities to deliver the project is much higher. As projects are temporary assignments, it is cheaper to engage external capacity during the project than to hire internal resources.
11. Human Resources
Today, project managers need to be project leaders too, especially for the more complex and cross-functional projects. These require pulling resources across the organization and changing the old status quo. In fact, we can argue that the best project managers are leaders but also entrepreneurs – they are the CEOs of their projects.
Stakeholders are individuals and groups (entities, organizations, etc.) that are impacted by, are involved in, or have an interest in the outcome of a project. The larger the project, the more stakeholders there will likely be. The more stakeholders, the more efforts are required in terms of communication and change management activities.
13. Change Management
Project managers today need to understand change management, rather than just communication. Based on the stakeholder analysis, the project manager will define a change management plan, including different activities, such as training, communications, info sessions, etc. According to PMI’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, about 75-90 percent of a project manager’s time is spent formally or informally communicating during the implementation phase of a project.
Domain 4: Where
The Where domain covers the external elements that can have a positive or negative impact on the project. These areas are often outside the control of the project leader, yet there are ways that the leader can influence the project favorably. The executive sponsor plays an important role in influencing the organization too.
How to Put in Practice
In upcoming newsletters, I will be sharing examples of how to use the project canvas. You’ll see that it is quite straightforward and simple and at the same time a powerful tool to help you get alignment around your project stakeholders and better control of the project fundamentals.
What do you think about the Project Canvas?
Have you seen similar frameworks?
Are you ready to try it out?
<< You can download the Project Canvas on my website under the free stuff >>
 Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: HarperBusiness, 1997). PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition (2017), https://www.pmi.org/pmbok-guide-standards/foundational/pmbok