Tag Archives: Creative Problem Solving Process

Project Management: Are we Solving the Right Problems?


Wrong way

I have met many project managers who approach their roles with dedication, thoughtfulness, and considerable diligence.  The body of knowledge in the PM field is growing, aided by the efforts of such groups as the Project Management Institute.  Rigorous certification programs are offered around the world, and many motivated people have pursued learning the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).

Yet, in spite of all this effort, the evidence shows that we are not getting better at managing projects in our organizations.

Depending on the study you look at, between 37% and 68% of projects (in the IT field) are judged to be “failures” in that they did not meet expected outcomes (70% or lower completion of objectives), ran seriously over budget (by 160% or more), or blew past their timeline goals by a wide margin (180% or more).   The data for ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and BI (Business Intelligence) projects is even worse.

So, what are we missing?

As you read through the analytical studies, a theme begins to emerge.  One researcher ascribes the shortcomings to our inability to analyze the business problems we choose to solve.   The IAG Consulting study referenced below explains the consequence in this way:  “Companies with poor business analysis capability will have three times as many project failures as successes.”

The PM solutions report referenced below asserts that the leading causes of project failures have to do with:

  • Resources: Lack of resources, resource conflicts, turnover of key resources, poor planning.
  • Schedules: Too tight, unrealistic, overly optimistic.
  • Planning: Based on insufficient data, missing items, insufficient details, poor estimates.
  • Risks: Unidentified or assumed, not managed.

But like the IAG people  they concluded that the NUMBER ONE cause of project failures is related to:

Requirements: Unclear, lack of agreement, lack of priority, contradictory, ambiguous, imprecise.

What makes matters worse is that even if the project is technically successful, too often it was just not worth the effort.   Who cares if we meet the requirements and meet our timeline and budget if the outcome did not materially impact our business?   Now if I reflect on my own personal experiences, I can recall numerous projects where we actually delivered on what our documented requirements were only to have the client (whether internal or external) say “well. . . thank you but this isn’t what I was imagining”, or “could you change it to do this or that instead”?   Who among us hasn’t been to that movie?   In fact I can recall a meeting with one of my past clients where we were discussing the question of requirements definition and the Senior VP of IT stood up and said to his people “if at the end the client is not happy, you just show them the requirements list!”   Yikes!  Really?  Let’s rub their face in it?  How did we degenerate into that kind of defensive action where the requirements list becomes little more than a “CYA” tool?

What was interesting to me about this example was that the executive I am describing was highly intelligent and worked for a well-regarded and quite sophisticated company.   But he was operating in a political climate where other operating executives were criticizing his team for their lack of responsiveness and effectiveness.  We are all a product of our organizational culture.

When you spoke to the project managers in that company, they, of course would describe how difficult it was to get clients to sit down and focus in a meaningful discussion about what they needed.

Why is this so hard?

I believe this is because we often ask the wrong questions.   When you sit down and ask someone what they want, they often can’t tell you.  If you show them some type of prototype, they can typically tell you what they like or dislike, but not everyone has a good imagination.   We are limited in our ability to articulate requirements because of our limited life experiences and our knowledge of what might be possible technologically.   It is hard for me to imagine something I have never seen or experienced.  This is why focus groups have gone out of fashion, as market researchers across the planet look for better ways to understand their customers.  The game is more about understanding what customers think and feel, instead of relying solely on what they say.

A BETTER line of questioning has nothing to do with requirements, but with what PROBLEMS I am trying to cope with as I conduct my job?  Let your customer service people express:

“I don’t have the information to answer customer phone questions about delivery status”; or “I feel if I had access to information about our products and pricing, I think I could sell the caller on different products or services.  Sometimes they order the wrong things”; or “we are way too slow in responding to requests for emergency service”.   Then, let your inventive technical people try to imagine how they might help with those things.  Once they have some ideas, they can share them with their client to test the viability.   Speak to them within the context of THEIR world, not yours.

creative problem solving frameworkThe Creative Problem Solving Process is one way I know to do a better job with the challenge of problem definition.  It uses an 8-step sequence of actions.   The orange section (steps 1-3) is all about understanding the problem(s) more deeply, and then choosing the most relevant ones to solve.   The yellow section (steps 5 and 6) is about generating solution ideas and choosing the best ones.  The green section (steps 6-8) is about execution planning. 

The main (and often surprising) insight is that the first three steps (1-3) consume as much as 50-60% of the time in the process! The discovery part of this section does not come from an interrogation of clients to solicit a list of requirements, but from the art of empathetic observation.    Here we are trying to go beneath the layer of superficial knowledge to gain a deeper insight into client emotions, biases, and motivations.

Too often we reject this notion because we allow ourselves to be trapped in a paradigm where we need to take immediate action, producing solutions – so that we are efficient.  I’m all for efficiency, but efficiently solving the wrong problem is not helping anyone.

Sometimes it pays to slow down.  Slower, often can be faster . . . and better.

Other Resources

Poor requirements definition is the number one reason for poor outcomes. (you can tell this article was written by a person with traditional PM training.) Why 37% of Projects Fail?

And another — which reinforces the issue that we aren’t solving the right problems (and are generally poor at defining requirements) Study: 68 percent of IT projects fail

And this one — argues that we haven’t improved at all in the last decade (in spite of the energy put into better PM skills) 62 percent of IT projects fail. Why?

Source Data from IAG Consulting, their Business Analysis Benchmark

Source Data from PM Solutions Study

A reasonable primer on “Why Do Projects Fail?: Learning How to Avoid Project Failure”

More details on the idea that sometimes slow is fast. Slowing Down to Move Fast, by Len Brzozowski

Innovation management vs. project management thinking, Design thinking: A new approach to fight complexity and failure

More on market and client intelligence gathering. Driving Innovative Strategy Through Empathetic Observation, by Len Brzozowski

 

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Looking for the Breakthrough Innovation


I just finished a two-day Creative Problem Solving workshop with a group of highly technically proficient people.  The group was engaged and worked very hard not only collecting information and interviewing customers prior to and the again throughout the intense final 2 days.  The team did a great job sharing their field immersion learning points, generating lots of “problems”  to solve, and developing many logical “idea cards” (which define how to solve the most important problems).

Many of the idea cards were specific and addressed unique problems that the group carefully identified.  Some of them were tactical, and addressed various performance shortcomings they learned about from their interviews.  One of the participants came to me in the middle of the session saying “these are all good ideas, but I don’t think I see some ‘breakthrough’ innovations that could allow us to leapfrog our competition.”  This was a reasonable comment.  It made me think about the answer.

Not all Innovation = an iPAD

The Creative Problem Solving Process we use at Xavier Leadership Center guides people through an array of fact-finding activities that help them look at their business through an external lens.  Listening to customers is pretty important, and the issues they raised, whether large or small represent things worth paying attention to.  If the customer is right in their concern, then it is probably worthy of being addressed on its own merit.   As a consequence, some of the ideas generated in a CPS workshop might seem overly tactical.

However, we are also trying to get ourselves to begin thinking about underlying trends or themes that lead us to root cause insights. Perhaps your sales process creates a set of false expectations that later manifested themselves in customer dissatisfaction; or there might be an installation and training solution that needs complete re-thinking.

Building Momentum

A bit later in our workshop, the teams were asked to build a series of one year improvement initiatives based on the idea cards they generated.  One broad theme was about customer service, another was related to installation, and a third theme area related to the sales process.   We asked the teams to select the idea cards they felt were most impactful, and then create a one year action plan.   By this time, we had as a group discussed the topic of game changing ideas compared with others that simply allow you to achieve parity.  After a while, one of the participants came to me and remarked “you know . . . when I first looked at each of the idea cards by themselves, I didn’t think we were looking at breakthroughs.   But when you start to combine several of them together, it is a completely different story!”

Isn’t that often the case?   In fact the entire notion of continuous improvement is about creating momentum though a series of ongoing small innovations with a similar trajectory.  This too can produce sustainable competitive advantage, especially if you can learn to maintain a fast pace to your innovation agenda. Also, taking many small steps has less risk.   This is related to what Jim Collins called the hedgehog concept and the flywheel effect in his book, Good to Great.

Ask Better Questions

Sure building momentum is a powerful competitive approach to consider, but does it lead to a revolutionary idea?  Perhaps not. That requires a change in perspective lead from asking better questions.

Most of us own a DVR at home, right?  So why is it we have one?  Is it because we have a burning desire to record programs?  Or, does this product meet a much deeper need, like helping us gain greater control over our already too hectic lives?

If you are the engineering team at the DVR manufacturing company, your product planning probably focuses on what it takes to make a better DVR.   How much memory should it have?   How many buttons should there be?  What color should the display panel be? And so forth. However, when your focus is too narrow, what you are likely to end up with – at best – is a marginally better DVR.

Alternatively, if you asked the deeper question “what other things would people like to have more control over in their lives – that we might be able to provide?” you open the door to many other possibilities.   You might develop a computer device that didn’t store anything, but controlled other aspects of a consumer’s life. You might even consider a service rather than a product.  Choosing which problem you are trying to solve is HUGE.

The Creative Problem Solving process guided participants to ask many more questions than they might n normally (typically 200-300 or more in a session) in search of new problems to solve.   The game changer problems are probably not the obvious ones you normally talk about.

Gluing Car Doors Together?

My company was in the welding business serving the auto industry.   Welding was and is a challenging process. You press two pieces of steel between a pair of electrodes, apply pressure and pass a controlled current through them to melt and forge the steel together.  The process variables are many (steel dimensional variations, the electrodes wear and get thicker with each weld, power line voltages change, die oils sometimes coat the steel, and so forth).   Maintaining quality as all these things change is sometimes a nightmare.   Everyone in the industry focused their engineers and scientists into understanding and controlling the physics of a 5-7 mm in diameter weld spot.  The question they asked was “How do we make a better welding system?”

Our solution ultimately was to replace the welds completely, using instead, pumped structural ADHESIVES which were cured using an electromagnetic field.  What we developed was stronger, provided less car body panel vibration, resisted corrosion better, required less maintenance, and was cheaper.  This innovation for us was responsible for a 10X growth in sales revenues over about 5-6 years.

The point I am trying to make is that as long as we saw the “problem” as designing a better welding system, all we would ever create was better welders.   The capacity to see this as NOT a welding problem was the first step in imagining the idea of gluing car parts together.

If you are looking for breakthrough innovation, ask more and better questions, and then look for new problems to solve.

The group I was working with this week discussed many technical features and benefits of their current product offering.   Many of them seemed to define the theme “How might we simplify the lives of our customers with the technologies and services we can provide?

That is a pretty good question.

Other resources

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition, by Wayne Fisher, Xavier Leadership Center

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