A friend of mine suggested I read Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration so I added it to my reading list. Dr. Keith Sawyer is the author; his writing style really appeals to me because he boils down some difficult ideas to easy to understand concepts. I know it was written in 2008, but it addresses the concepts of innovation and creativity that I guarantee you are dealing with in your current position. Dr. Sawyer is a former developer and is now a Professor of Education and Psychology at Washington University. I have to admit that I would love to take a couple of classes from him.
His book has really inspired me and made me start to consider that the pursuit of creative solutions to challenges and innovation within organizations are really at the heart of project management. Regardless of the methodology you use — Scrum, PMBOK, Waterfall, or Critical Chain — as a project manager the reality is you have been hired to help identify the best solutions to problems that may or may not exist right now and to create those solutions with the help of project teams. But when you work for a manufacturer with ancient management strategies, a software company with extensive legacy code, or a finance company handcuffed by Federal regulation, innovation can be perceived as a luxury only available to other companies.
But is that the case? Dr. Sawyer would argue no. If your company is not innovating and creating new solutions for its clients then it is doomed to fail. At the pace that business currently runs at, that means the failure rate is even quicker than it was just 10 years ago. The good news is there is something that can be done. The better news is there is something you as a project manager can do for your company.
As a project manager, how do you perceive yourself and project management? Do you think of yourself as the facilitator of the ideas of other people or do you think of yourself as an innovative leader? You have to start looking at yourself as an integral member of the organization who is tasked with creating innovative solutions to either internal or external problems. You should tirelessly pursue the best options that exist within the scope of what you have been asked to do. Does that mean you have to come up with all the solutions yourself? Absolutely not. It does mean that you owe it to yourself to make sure you get the most out of your team so they can help come up with the pieces of the puzzle. Some would call it creative disruption, but that is a discussion for another day.
In the book, Dr. Sawyer outlines what he calls the Ten Steps of the Collaborative Organization. I am not going to discuss all ten, but I have selected a handful that will help you immediately as a project manager. So before we go into the abbreviated list, suspend all thoughts of “that isn’t my job” because that’s crap. Exceptional project managers who are perceived as indispensable to their organization know there isn’t anything that falls outside of their scope. Here is the list:
- Manage the Risks of Improvisation — One trait of the Scrum methodology that I love is that it demands constant innovation that is then prioritized by the Product Owner. PMBOK also allows for creativity and innovation, but the process is controlled by a Change Control Board, which may or may not understand the vision of a proposed change. As the project manager it is your job to encourage your team to come up with improvements to the product of your project and to do so without the fear that they will be reprimanded. Plan for time to allow your team to collaborate and innovate together. You will be surprised by the ideas that are generated by these events.
- Manage Knowledge for Innovation — I love this idea. When your team comes up with a solution for a problem that another team in the company may be facing, it is your responsibility to share that solution. I know project managers who keep those solutions to themselves so that they can get credit for the idea at the right time. Not only is this selfish and based in a scarcity mentality, but it kills trust within the company. Set up an internal Wiki for your company where everyone at the company can detail their ideas of how to tackle problems faced by your company. I would even suggest aggressively marketing a similar concept to customers will improve your product by leaps and bounds over the long run.
- Keep Lots of Irons in the Fire — We are all busy. I have seen studies that show that if you stopped accepting new tasks it would take you 18 months to work through your current To-Do list. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have several projects on the back burner. You should always keep a personal log of the ideas generated by your team. Let the ideas ruminate and come up with a list of projects you would like to tackle. You might be surprised when after making a proposal using one of these solutions that you get the green light to move forward. In Steven Johnson’s TED talk about the subject, he notes that most innovation does not come from an eureka moment, but what he calls a “slow burn”. You have to let your ideas cook a little before they are ready to serve.
You can tell I love talking about innovation and creativity. I personally believe a good project manager is one who can focus on the task list associated with their project and motivate their team to move forward. The difference between good and exceptional in my book is an exceptional project manager has that same skill set plus provides constant innovation through creative collaboration with their team. If you want to take the next step and provide that level of service to your current company, I encourage you to read Dr. Sawyer’s book.