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Straight Talk on Project Management

Brainstorming

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The IT Project Management brainstorm. No wrong answers, just wrong questions and wrong people answering them!

In a recent episode of ITV daytime Game Show ‘Tipping Point’, contestant Dom made me howl with laughter at his answer to one of host Ben Shephard’s questions! You will probably have seen this by now – it went viral.

The question was this: “In his epic poems, Homer often refers to nectar as the drink of the gods and which other substance as their food?”

“I know he likes doughnuts,” answered Dom, a primary school teacher, clearly confusing Homer Simpson with his namesake poet from ancient Greece. “I think I’ll go with doughnuts.”

Ben Shephard’s face was a picture as he stifled a smile, turned to the other contestant and said, “OK, you could have passed this one over to Lindsey. Lindsey?”

“I would have said ‘doughnuts’ as well,” admitted Lindsey.

Classic!

What’s this got to do with IT Project Management?

There’s No Wrong Answers

I am a firm believer that, when ideating or brainstorming a way forward, there are no wrong answers in Project Management. Right up until the time comes to execute the strategy you have decided upon! Then, the wrong answer can be disastrous leaving you feeling like a bit of a doughnut yourself!

So, you have to be pretty sure that your final answer is your BEST answer!

To get your best answer you must make sure that you’re all clear on the question.

When Ben Shephard repeats the question there’s a lovely moment where Dom properly hears the key first part (“In his epic poems”) and he mutters, “Oh, we’ve got the wrong Homer.”

When hearing the answer was Ambrosia, I expected the contestants to give a little gasp and say, “Really? Rice pudding? Who knew?”

So … Lesson One – Be clear what question you’re answering!

I remember once getting in a new car for the first time on a cold morning. The windows were steamed up and I set about trying to work out how to get the warm air blowers to move from my feet and face and focus on demisting the windscreen. I pushed buttons, twiddled knobs, adjusted the vents, still I couldn’t see through! Then I accidentally nudged the lever for the wipers and they jumped into action clearing the screen in one sweep. The problem was on the outside! I’d been asking the question “how do I get the heaters to demist the inside of the windscreen?” whereas I should have been asking “how do I see through the windscreen?”

I was only young but it’s a lesson I often remember and in struggling IT Projects, year after year, asking the wrong question is repeated problem. 

Lesson Two – Ask The Right People

But, what about brainstorming? There are no wrong answers, no bad ideas, in the brainstorming stage, right?

I used to generally believe this to be so, then a team I was consulting with invited me to join their organisation’s “Big Think” session. The premise was sound enough, when facing a challenge get together as many individuals as possible, from across the business, to pitch in with creative ideas. The thinking being that often a fresh perspective, with no baggage, a pair of eyes not bogged down by the problem, may see a ground-breaking way forward.  One of the challenges under discussion related to an IT Project driven business change, hence my invitation.

Honestly, you’ve never heard anything like it. Most of the suggestions from the project team were safe ideas that had worked before elsewhere.

The more left-field, creative ideas came from those who could walk away from the meeting without any of their suggestions impacting them. These were bold and imaginative alright!!!! Great!!! And they would have needed at least a doubling of the project budget and delay to the delivery date!! Not so great! As for ground-breaking, they were undeniably ground-breaking, but then so are earthquakes and these ideas would have been equally destructive.

Safety In Numbers: Soloists More Creative Than Groups

A quick history. The term “brainstorm” dates back to 1939. Alex Osborn, a partner at an advertising agency started to hold “group-thinking” sessions to come up with ideas for clients. The goal of these sessions, like this organisation’s “Big Think” was to generate a large volume of ideas through collective brainpower, without judgment, at least at this initial stage.

A decade later, in his book “Your Creative Power”, Osborn defined brainstorming as “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” It has since become one of the “go-to” team problem solving method. When it works, it’s great! When it doesn’t – oh boy!!

Actually, the first proper scientific test of Osborn’s brainstorming process came about a decade on from the book, at Yale in 1958, when groups of students were given creative puzzles and instructed to follow Osborn’s brainstorming rules: Focus on a single target; Withhold criticism and judgment; No idea is a “bad” idea; The crazier the idea, the better. (“easier to tone down than think up”); etc

interestingly, the solo students came up with twice as many solutions as the groups and the solo students’ ideas were rated more “effective” and “feasible” by the judges. The group setting, it seemed, suppressed creativity and big thinking rather than foster and encourage it.

Washington University psychologist Dr. Keith Sawyer observed, “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

It appears, subconsciously, members of a group can feel peer pressure and prioritise staying in favour with the pack and not putting their heads above the parapet (the safe ideas put forward in this “Big Think” exercise). Also, introverts are less likely to shout up with ideas in a group setting than in a smaller arrangement (like a one to one), and as a result more confident members can end up leading the process. So, the effectiveness of a brainstorm is a function of the people in the room, it can be a roll of the dice based on the people who show up to take part.

No-one wants to make a fool of themselves in front of the boss so a variety of tried and tested “safe” ideas get trotted out leaving a decision to be made that worked on “project A”, “project B” and “project C” – but we’re trying to find a solution for a problem haunting “project Z”! It’s like being on the Titanic as the stairs turn into a waterfall and the restaurant fills with ocean water and remembering how well paper towels work on spills in the kitchen back home.

“When a group does creative work, a large body of research shows that the more that authority figures hang around, the more questions they ask, and especially the more feedback they give their people, the less creative the work will be. Why? Because doing creative work entails constant setbacks and failure, and people want to succeed when the boss is watching–which means doing proven, less creative things that are sure to work,” according to Stanford MBA school professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton (*1)

The safe ideas coming out of that “Big Think” session were all put forward by IT Project team members not wanting to have their card negatively marked by the CIO who was also on the call, the crazier, more out-there ideas were from folk who saw the session as a break from their regular job and who had no skin in the game! Then, there was me, sitting, just taking it all in. I neither cared about looking a fool nor wanted to be a hero, I wasn’t after an opportunity to share a crazy idea (there were a few ‘hey I know I work in a totally different department, but have you thought of’ contributions). No, I was there to observe and then patiently suggest the PMaaS (Project Management as a Service) solution that I knew would work best. As indeed, once adopted, it did.

I guess the point is, there ARE no bad ideas and wrong answers in brainstorming – until you canvas the ideas of people with no experience of your challenges or who don’t have to live with the consequences or who are too afraid to suggest anything too off the scale in case it sullies their career!

If you want a solution that offers “no wrong answers”, especially in IT Project Management, especially now, ask the right question of the right people – or get an actual expert who’ll help you ascertain what the right question is and help find the best answer to suit you.

Call 01623 723910 or email info@stoneseed.co.uk to get our eyes across your problem.

We could even get some doughnuts in at our first meeting.

  Find out about Stoneseed’s Project Services

Sources

*1 From “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-based Management” by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Author), Robert I. Sutton  (Author)

And that Doh!Nut clip: Ben Shephard stunned as Tipping Point contestant confuses ancient Greek poet with Homer Simpson (msn.com)