The OverTheFence Project Canvas

Overthefence Project Canvas

In a previous blog post, I’ve already presented a selection of canvases for managing projects. So, one may ask, “why do we need another project canvas?”, “what’s different”, and “what is it good for?”.

In the following, our motivation to create the “Overthefence Project Canvas” is outlined. You learn about the purpose of this specific canvas, the research we have undertaken to shape the tool, and how you can make use of the canvas (and even help improving it).

Filling the Gap

Our motivation to create the Overthefence Project Canvas has been raised during the last 3 years of practical project work. Since 2010, when the term “canvas” was introduced by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, we’ve met many people who fell in love with the original concept of the “business model canvas”. In fact, many people loved Osterwalder/Pigneur’s canvas so much that they even tried to apply it to projects. But this – not surprisingly – was not the best idea and led to unsatisfactory results. The business model canvas – as great as it is for designing regular businesses – is simply not made for projects (which are unique and limited in time).

Subsequently, we learned from our customers and fellows that there is a strong need for a “project canvas”. And we have been told that this project canvas must play in the same league as Osterwalder/Pigneur’s approach. “In the same league” clearly meant that this new canvas must go beyond displaying a “project charter” in canvas format. And it meant that the challenge could not be mastered by sitting solely in a study.

Having got the message, we decided to do two things, (a) undertake empirical research and (b) invite people to co-create.

The Project Journey

Each substantial project is a collaborative endeavor which involves people from diverse backgrounds and fields of expertise. These people have different professional perspectives and speak different “languages”. Consequently, the starting point of each project must be the development of a mutual understanding about the purpose, the subject, and the procedure of a project. This is what we wanted to create a project canvas for – it should become a shared tool for creating a common ground!

In order to better understand “commonality” in this regard, we started asking people about their general definition of “a project”. These people came from all continents, and covered a broad range of professions (business, engineering, natural science, arts, sports, etc.). The interviewed people have not necessarily been project professionals but they have taken part in a number of projects.

Each Project is a JourneyFirstly, we asked people to tell us their associations regarding some words which are set terms in project management (“what is a CUSTOMER?”, “what is a SCOPE?”, what is a SERVICE?”, etc.). The result was a list of “general project terms” which are understandable for most people, independent of profession and culture. Secondly, we searched for “stories” and “experiences” which people associate with “a project”. The purpose of this was to identify the most common metaphor for “a project”. As it turned out, this widely used metaphor is “a journey into the unknown”?

The picture shows our visualization of a project journey. It became the underlying metaphor of the Overthefence Project Canvas (you can read the full story in our book which is available for free at Gumroad).

Insights from Experts

How to best design an instrument that can foster cross-disciplinary communication for better starting projects? In order to answer this question, we were looking for insights from project management experts. Again, we set up a questionnaire and ran interviews. The target group comprised professional project managers and consultants who have experienced a minimum of ten inter-disciplinary projects (most of them have worked in twenty or more). Almost fifty percent of the interviewees have been certified in traditional PM as well as in agile methods; the remaining interviewees possess certificates from one PM school.

The main findings from the PM expert interviews are:

  • Way of communication: for gaining a common understanding in an early stage of a project, “direct oral communication” is the best. “Mediated oral communication (via phone/internet)” and “written communication” are less helpful.
  • Purpose of communication: for gaining a common understanding, social aspects are of highest importance. Exchanging professional views and finding facts are seen as less important (but still important).
  • Form of meeting: for gaining a common project understanding, a core team should meet. Bigger groups (incl. all stakeholders, etc.), and bilateral talks between single project members are less favorable.
  • Instruments of communication: in a meeting of an inter-disciplinary project team, only “freehand drawings and sketches” and “word-of-mouth (stories, etc.)” are entirely positive. Other media/formats like “process models”, “prototypes”, “role play”, “statistics”, or “digital presentations” have proponents  as well as skeptics.

Developing the Project Canvas

These insights have been considered when developing the Overthefence Project Canvas. The tool intends to

  • support direct oral communication (face to face)
  • foster social relationships, while simultaneously exchanging professional views and facts
  • develop a common ground and make it explicit (“single point of truth”)
  • be particularly suitable for freehand drawings, sketches and simple visualizations, but open for a variety of other media and communication instruments
  • be suitable for groups from 3 to 15 participants (project core teams)

Making Good Things Better

The described research led to Overthefence Project Canvas version 1.0.

In the current version, we already made some changes based on “your” practical experiences: we added the “Purpose” building block, and improved the canvas questions. Thank you very much for your comments and your helpful suggestions!

For the future, we invite you to make further use of the Canvas. “Over the Fence” is an open source service and the canvas can be used and adapted for free. So, if you are facing a new project, apply the Overthefence Project Canvas for your purpose. After your canvas experience: tell others how you succeeded and let us know, whether we can improve the tool for future use.

We would be happy, if you would share your canvas story!

by Frank Habermann

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