Monthly Archives: February 2012

Find a new angle – lateral thinking

This is the next post in the Thinking Styles Series

Lateral thinking

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, our thinking styles can often get in the way of moving forward, particularly in messy situations. Our natural instinct is to think about things in a logical and systematic way but often this can trap us into reaching inappropriate conclusions.

Edward De Bono

Lateral Thinking was first proposed by Edward De Bono in 1967 – I came across the idea a few years later. The concept is to come at your problem or situation from different angles, to challenge the [often unstated] assumptions built into your thinking and seek multiple alternative approaches.

There are strong parallels to some of the ideas put forward in Creative Thinking and it would be easy to dismiss this way of thinking as a sub-set of those ideas, but the concepts are stronger than that. I don’t propose to go into details here because the ideas are easily followed up via the author’s websites. Read Dr De Bono’s own explanation here.

It is, however, critical to recognise that logical thinking will sometimes get in the way and sometimes lead us inappropriate conclusions. This example demonstrates the differences between lateral and logical thinking – revealing a strategy for success which would never be found by conventional thinking.

Vaccinate your thinking processes

In his book, Dr De Bono quotes the case of the switch in thinking styles which allowed Edward Jenner to discover the route to vaccination against Smallpox. Whilst others focused on why sufferers got Smallpox, Jenner turned his attention to asking why milkmaids seemed to be immune to the infection. He postulated that the similar but less aggressive disease of Cowpox provided immunity against smallpox

That “simple” switch of focus allowed a means of preventing this horrific disease to be found and as we now know it has been eradicated.

So when you are faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, why not stand to one side, ask some probing questions about what is and what is not and see if there is a new angle to attack your challenge.

Dare to be different

It is also worthwhile to build lateral thinking into your strategy development and marketing because if you adopt a purely logical approach, you are likely to do the same as your competitors!

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Four project management lessons from the BRIT awards

Listening to some of the coverage of the BRIT music awards and the problems that delays caused for star of the show Adele – and her reaction, reminded me of a conversation I had about project scheduling at the start of a major capital project.

The conversation involved me, experienced Project Manager Barry Ryan and our mutual client. In reality, I was a bit of a bystander but the message was valid. The conversation when a bit like this:

Barry: How does a project get to be six months behind schedule?

Client: I’ve done lots of projects but never got to the bottom of that one.

Barry: Well, its one day at a time.

Wise words!

So, what’s the message from this for project management [and time management and event planning for that matter]:

  1. You need to be vigilant from the start – especially if things slow down
  2. You need to understand what is important to all of the stakeholders
  3. You have to be clear about your objectives and
  4. You have to know what you can cut and what you can’t – understand the landscape of the project

If you don’t you’ll get no choice and will end up having to cut what comes towards the end – which may be the most important part.

Project Planning as Map Making

This is the second post on the “Project Thinking” sub-theme which has emerged from the “Thinking Styles” theme.

Planning Importance and Experience

Anyone who has been involved with projects will be aware of the importance of planning and most will have war stories about what has worked and what has not. In my view, planning is misunderstood by many people and often fails as a result.
The key issues are:

  • You need to understand the “landscape” of the project before you can come up with a sensible plan and the ability to respond to what is discovered on the journey [project].
  • The process and the communication involved are usually more important than the plan.
  • The plan is a by-product of the thinking: poor thinking = poor plan.
  • The plan is the current best guess based on what we know now.
  • Reality will be different to what has been planned but forewarned is forearmed.

I aim to set the scene here and will return to the theme in a later post.

Planning and Understanding

To thoroughly understand the project you need to know its geography and perhaps the underlying geology. You need to be able to answer the following questions:

Plans as Maps

To be able to do this effectively there is a need for a series of plans of different types. This is similar to the different types of map needed to understand an area.

  • Broad picture – atlas style
  • More detailed – road map style
  • Detailed – street map / ordnance survey style
  • Specialist presentations – demographics / geological maps

The key difference in a project context is that you have to create each of these maps yourself! In many cases, the starting point and desired end point are known and often the journey time is specified [perhaps with little reference to what needs to be done and the prevailing conditions] but the terrain which needs to be crossed is not known in sufficient detail. Consequently, it makes sense to think of the journey ahead as an exploration. Most projects are one offs: the participants will have been on similar expeditions in the past but will never have been on this precise journey before.

The plan and the journey

To continue the metaphor, the expedition [project] leader will know where they are starting from and the height and location of the mountain they need to climb but not have any idea of how hospitable the terrain between the starting point and the destination is:

  • Are there rivers to ford?
  • Intermediate mountain ranges to traverse?
  • Deserts to cross?

There is also the potential for an imbalance between the route to be taken and the resources available, the fitness of the team and the tools available. There is a danger [see Project Planning – the 4th Dimension] that the timing will be set on the basis of optimum resources and the budget set on a less generous basis.

Project planning as a change process

As with any change process, involving the team in the process is really helpful both in terms of arriving at better solutions, reducing resistance and gaining commitment. If they produce the map and understand the landscape they are crossing then they will be both more focused on producing a good map [their success depends on it] and secondly, they will be aware of options on how to accommodate changes in circumstances. This will lead to greater motivation and less stress when the inevitable diversions become necessary.

It also is likely to lead to a more helpful understanding of the purpose of the plan and degree of confidence to be placed in the current plan. The mind-set becomes one of accepting the plan as being the current best [informed] guess of the best way forward and an understanding that some of the fine details of the route will only become apparent when one ventures into the unknown.

Remember, without involvement, there is no commitment; so, worry less about producing the plan and put more effort into facilitating the planning process and developing a shared understanding of the expedition.