Canvases for Managing Projects

Project Canvas Collection

Graphical modeling is one of the big things in project management. We display schedules as Gantt charts, visualize risks by means of IPRA matrices, create maps for categorizing stakeholders, and assign project responsibilities by means of RACI. And this is just to mention a few of the available modeling techniques – I guess there are hundreds in project management (not to mention the thousands in general management).

Since the advent of Osterwalder/Pigneur’s book Business Model Generation, a new modeling technique became extremely prominent: the so called “Canvas”. In the following we discuss, the general characteristics of a canvas, and how to apply the technique. At the end, we list a selection of canvases which are currently available in project management.


Canvas defined

What is a “Canvas”? In general, a canvas is a rough graphical model, an abstract description of a specific context (i.e. the domain you are interested in). In Osterwalder/Pigneur’s case for example, the context is “Business”; their “Business Model Canvas” describes the building blocks of any business. In the case of a “Product Canvas”, the context would be “Product”; the canvas describes the general building blocks of a product. And in project management? Now, we will come to that point in a few minutes.

To sum it up: Each canvas decomposes a complex context or domain (like a business or a product) into its pieces and parts – most canvases call these pieces and parts the “building blocks”. In this way, a canvas can be understood as architecture or framework that needs to be filled in order to describe the context.

What’s really new?

Architectures and frameworks existed long before the “Canvas”. So, what’s really new with the canvas – why is it all that exciting? To my opinion there are two things which form the basis for the success of the canvas: simplicity and materiality!

  • Simplicity means, that a canvas must not be sophisticated! It should be a very simple model with just a few building blocks and not too many interrelations. A canvas should provide a very general overview and a foundational structure, no more, no less. Simplicity also includes that a canvas incorporates a simple set of signs and symbols which are intuitive to understand.
  • Materiality means, that a canvas should be physical; rather paper (low tech) than software (high tech). The idea of each canvas is to foster a fruitful face-to-face discussion among diverse people. For this, a canvas should be open for all kinds of creative communication tools and media, from note cards and post it’s to modeling clay and colored drawings. A canvas should be inviting, therefore it must be free of technical hurdles.

What‘s a canvas used for?

Above, I have already mentioned some examples: a canvas can be used for setting up a business, developing a new product or service, creating a political campaign, starting a new business project, etc. What have these things in common? Well, in general, a canvas is used for

  • defining a future undertaking
  • which requires people of different expertise to come together
  • in order to discuss several subject-related questions which are highly interrelated

In other words: a canvas is used for planning procedures which are both, complex and complicated! Complicated means, the planning comprises a number of non-trivial aspects which require a huge amount of subject-related knowledge. Complex means, the planning involves different professional and personal perspectives; the process is social and multi-dimensional and has no simple or single truth.

How can it best be applied?

A canvas is open for many meeting formats. First of all, a canvas is a sheet of paper which serves as an invitation to talk. How you meet and talk depends on many factors: the complexity of the challenge, the number of people required, whether people know each other or not, which background they have, and what kind of communication they are used to. So, there is actually no “best-practice” to apply a canvas. But there is good news too: a canvas is open to all kinds of communication and meeting formats – you can flexibly combine it with facilitation techniques, prototyping approaches, creativity methods, gamification, etc.

In their book, Osterwalder/Pigneur have discussed some valuable ways to apply a canvas – and we will do this in the upcoming “Design” chapter of our book as well.

Canvases for project management

Project management, like many other disciplines, has adapted the canvas technology. This is great, because I strongly believe that a canvas can help bringing people together and making projects better. In my professional career, I have observed so many projects which have been a big misunderstanding, which have thus frustrated many people and wasted lots of time and resources. Therefore, I feel that each project that is applying a canvas is doing the right thing – no matter which canvas they use. And this is an important point I want to make: the following list is neither a “best of canvases” nor is it complete. It’s rather a random collection of appreciated members of the highly esteemed canvas family.
Project Canvas - Kalbach The Project Canvas created by James Kalbach (at that time Principal User Experience Strategist at USEEDS), contains 10 building blocks and puts the “User” as well as “User Benefits” in the center (which makes sense for USEEDS, because their core competency is designing user interfaces).
Open PM Project CanvasThe Open PM Canvas, comes along with four layers. The top layer “vision and goal” is followed by the “set up” layer and the “procedure” layer. Each of the three layers comprises three building blocks which makes a 3×3 grid. The grid is based on the bottom layer, called “timeline”. provides the translation of a project charter into a canvas. It provides typical business project management terms like “scope”, and “stakeholders” (which is true for most project canvases). In the center are “actions” and the “outcome” of actions.
Project SquareThe Project Square, from TURNAROUND (Germany), and the Project Model Canvas, from KUDOOS (Brasil), are two more examples of the international canvas family. While KUDOOS wants to foster agile thinking in Brasil’s PM community, TURNAROUND’s Project Square addresses projects which are in a critical phase. For this, their canvas comes along with some exciting building blocks like the “damages” a project could cause, or the “mind set” which is immanent to a project.
Overthefence Project CanvasThe Overthefence Project Canvas is based on the consistent metaphor of a project journey. The canvas aims to particularly support the communication in diverse/inter-disciplinary project teams. Therefore, the canvas comes with a “neutral” terminology which is understandable even for non-business professionals and non-PM experts. The canvas is open source and can be modified according to project needs. More about the Overthefence Project Canvas…

Do you have a favorite project canvas which is not listed here?
Let me know!

article by Frank Habermann


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