While you might start with an issue or theme in mind, themes will also develop or emerge as you write. It may not be until the editing stage that you even begin to recognize your themes. Having recognized them, your themes will help you determine what to cut .... and what to highlight.
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So, as between message, messenger, and presentation--the three pillars of communication--themes are the message. And, they show up everywhere:
- Portfolios: Ask this: what's the message of the portfolio that binds the constituent programs, projects, and initiatives together?
In my PMO days, I had one portfolio that was exclusively CRM (customer relationship management); the message we wrote conveyed our idea of customer intimacy. (Remember Michael Treacy's and Fred Wiersema's 1993 paper in the Harvard Business Review: "Customer Intimacy and other Value Disciplines"? Intimacy, operational excellence, or product excellence are the big three)
- Programs: like a portfolio, the "big idea".
- Projects: the theme should come right out of the charter, the raison d'être as it were: why are we doing this project, or what's it to accomplish.
The agile guys have picked up the "theme" thing. In fact, agilists say that portfolios have "investment themes", the driving message for why invest in this or that portfolio. I like that one. And, then themes tie to epics--the top level narrative that explains what's going on. Leffingwell writes:
Epics are development initiatives that are intended to deliver the value of an investment theme and are identified, prioritized, estimated, and maintained in the portfolio backlog.
Agile Software Requirements
And, let's not forget marketing and sales; they've been around for centuries. In modern days for project managers it's proposals, the response to an RFP. Right up there in the executive summary ought to be the win theme--why me (or us)? If you've not tried to write such a message, give it a try sometime. You might find the message harder than it looks to get succint, effective, and memorable!
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