The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world
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Thinking for Creative Solutions

The execution of decisions on projects tends to be more of an art than science.  We’d love to have the buy-in that consensus brings, but don’t have the time, patience or need to debate every decision.  Command and control is efficient at getting the word out, but bogs down when individuals need to make lower level decisions.   How can we be decisive in both making AND implementing decisions while still maintaining the flexibility and creativity essential to survive this tumultuous global environment?   One of the more difficult situations is to implement high level decisions that are dictated by customers, organizational leaders or policy edicts (regulatory or corporate initiative) that cause cascading set of headaches for the project team to deal with.   Let’s take a deeper look at the challenges underlying our best efforts to roll out these types of changes and some strategies on how to solve those dilemmas.

The ultimate goal of implementing strategic decisions is to assess HOW the changes impact the project and WHAT specific actions , both immediate and long term, need to happen to realize the intended benefits/effects.  A creative solution that meets the need and minimizes impact to project success is essential in this situation.

1. The Change Challenge: Many of the roadblocks we face exist behind the closed doors of the mind.  We are hardwired to resist change, or at least to slow it down, in hopes that it may go away and not disrupt our work.  Project managers are not immune to this phenomenon, but we usually have a head start in processing it and lots of practice at dealing with constant change.  Once reality sets in that change is inevitable, our pre-fontal cortex gets overwhelmed with the possible ramifications to be figured out.  This overload condition throws the “fear” switch on which releases massive levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.  This “fight or flight” state literally disengages the firing of neurons responsible for logical thinking so that the reacting brain can take over (you wouldn’t want to think about jumping out of the way of danger, would you?).

Solution: We can help individuals avoid this overwhelmed state by brainstorming possible ramifications on a whiteboard (real or virtual).  Getting ideas out of our head and in visual form on the board enables the pre-frontal cortex the processing capability to dig deeper into the memory reserves for more additional solution ideas.

2. The Brainstorming ChallengeBrainstorming ideas can cause additional problems if we don’t take into consideration how the human brain operates.  Going right to the board will actually inhibit some people from contributing because they need time to reflect prior to sharing ideas.  Some individuals, who thrive “on off the cuff” contributions, tend to also use that skill to unknowingly subverting the information flow with sarcasm and judgments of ideas as they are shared.  “That idea will never work here” may be true, but we’re not ready to choose just yet.  These seemingly innocent remarks can illicit the brains “fight or flight” mechanism in others too, but this time our brain is attempting to protect our ego from possible embarrassment.  Emotions take over essentially eliminating the possibility of creative insights from occurring.

Solution: When you switch to brainstorming mode, provide a few minutes for everyone to jot down ideas on their own in silence.   This allows the “introvert” personality styles outlined by Myers Briggs (MBTI) time to gather their thoughts before sharing aloud.  You will also eliminate the brain getting “anchored” on a theme characterized by the first few ideas, providing for the maximum creativity for solutions.

3. The Jumping to Solution Challenge:  Once the ideas start to flow, it’s easy to start evaluating options to determine if it merits serious consideration.  This engagement of the pre-frontal cortex to analyze the options actually inhibits the brain from perceiving new insights.  The creative process is the one time when we want to “disengage” the thinking mind so that more subtle signals can take center stage.  Researchers have proven that the “Ah-Ha” moment is actually characterized by the lack of logical progression.

Solution: One key is to separate the ideas generation phase from the solution selection phase since they require different types of thinking.  Thinking partnerships are often helpful to create a less stressful environment in which to operate, which increases the likelihood of insights from occurring.  If you get stuck, it’s actually better to find a quick distraction than to work harder to find a solution.  This is why great ideas can pop up when you least expect them to, while taking a shower or driving home from work.  This break allows for a different neuron network to fire in your brain which has the potential for new insights to emerge.  Finally, make it safe for individuals to include ANY idea list.  If the idea is really too crazy then it will be eliminated during the solution narrowing process.  In the meantime, it may shift the mindset of others in the room, allowing for a unique line of thinking to emerge that might hold the creative implementation solution you desire.

These solutions suggestions might seem insignificant, but to the human brain they are essential for finding creative implementation ideas.  It  will also increase the commitment level of those taking part in the process significantly.  This engagement of team members is what will take them from just “complying” to the changes to being “committed” to implementing changes, which is essential for accelerating the change process.

Jeff Richardson
www.EmpoweredAlliances.com

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About the Author

JEFF RICHARDSON, M.S., is the founder and chief transformational engineer at Empowered Alliances, a training firm dedicated to collaborative team leadership and iterative team development. He is an organizational development and training project manager with more than 10 years of experience leading strategic change programs in Fortune 100 settings. As a facilitative consultant, Jeff has extensive experience working with program-management, business-development and engineering leaders to improve business results. Jeff's Secrets of Successful Networking program has helped many Bay Area leaders network for the past three years. He is an instructor at UCSC Extension. You can reach Jeff at jeff@empoweredalliances.com.
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2 Responses to “Thinking for Creative Solutions”

  1. Excellent advice, Jeff! Having worked with people from over 50 different countries, I can safely say that these challenges you present are characteristic of human beings worldwide, and the solutions you propose just as globally relevant. Thanks for a terrific post!

  2. Great insight, Jeff. I really appreciate that you highlight the important interaction between the PFC and amygdala in the decision making process. In order to explore the entire universe of possibilities and ideas, I find it useful to explore ideas in both the unstressed *and* the stressed states. As you point out, the way we process information changes between those two states and, for some, the clearest thinking occurs in the stressed state. Great ideas can be generated in both states and facilitating a brainstorming session that allows for both enables the facilitator to harvest more ideas. The trick is to not get too stressed!

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