Project Management

Innovative project managers use 'think time'

If you find yourself using the same PM solutions over and over again, you may need to carve out some "think time" to help stay innovative.

I recently attended a project management seminar in which one of the speakers noted that a project manager must be systematic and innovative. The systematic part is a no-brainer; in order to be successful at managing a project, a project manager must understand what step goes before another step. A systematic approach by its nature is linear; it may be multiple paths performed simultaneously, but each individual path is still linear. But the innovative part may not come as naturally to many project managers.

The act of innovating is defined as "the introduction of new things or methods." In IT, we know that there is always a better way; the same can be said for how we manage a project. There are aspects of a company's culture, personalities of key stakeholders, constraints, and limitations that call for a project manager to innovate.

For instance, you should view the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) standards as important guidelines but not as exact rules on how to manage every detail of the project. Also, you should constantly challenge yourself to come up with a new, more efficient way of doing something. Innovative project managers take "think time" to look at the challenge from multiple angles and truly challenge how they have always done things.

I've seen project managers automatically re-use what went well during the last project (I've even done this myself); it makes life simple because the outcome is pretty predictable. But over time, you might find yourself going with a solution because you're familiar with it and not necessarily because it's the best one for the job.

The challenge for project managers is twofold:

  • Whenever you get that squishy feeling that occurs when facing a new challenge, and you're tempted to take one of your "comfortable" tools out of the toolbox, stop and take some time to think and innovate. Instead, come up with the best tool for the job.
  • When faced with a familiar challenge that you have the perfect tools to address, stop, take some think time, and look at the challenge from different angles. Now that you have used this tool successfully for so long, is there a way you can improve it, upgrade it, or replace it with the younger, sleeker model?

Think time takes discipline. I don't know any successful project manager who isn't driving projects at 100 mph with their hair on fire. Taking think time when time is at a premium has the best results; this think time is akin to the planning phase of a project. When the stakeholder wants to take action immediately, a wise project manager will understand that the more time spent in the planning phase leads to more successful project outcomes.

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8 comments
mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I was taught to take out 30 minutes every day to plan and focus on improvements 40 years ago when I was running auto repair and machine shops. This "tool" used to be taught many years ago and until recently has fallen out of vogue. I discovered from my own experience that it works in project management, running test departments and any number of other enterprises.

JT Moore
JT Moore

Great post and great comments. Whole-heartedly agree with the need for 'Think Time.' When you boil it all down, the takeaways for me are to remember that PMBOK is a guide, and take the time to step back and find the best tool for the job. Many times that means duck taping your screwdriver to your hammer to create that new hybrid tool.

axaris
axaris

"Creative and Systematic" is an oxymoron. The world of IT cannot progress without the "Creative" part, and the world of Business relies on "Systematic" to make a profit. Things go terribly wrong when the one dominates the other.

biancaluna
biancaluna

Thinking time is essential, I book out thinking time at several points in a project. It's like turning the Rubiks cube and envisioning at the same time. I tend to do a lot of what I call Creating Order in Chaos projects -Discovery, feasibility studies, Strategy Development and Roadmapping. Your biggest mistake is to start doing straight away, I have seen so many PMs having to backtrack when they walked down a path they knew and thought would deliver results. Unfortunately, unless you have done the thinking up front, and you do not have to do this alone, you may end up on the wrong track. Thinking time can also help you put boundaries around fluffy requirements, those times when you try to gather 5 squirrels in your hands and tails, heads, snouts and paws come spilling out. It can help you with visualising and helping your client, reference group, or other stakeholders with a What If scenario. What if it looked like this but in pink with yellow dots? If you can't see in your mind's eye where you are heading, how can you convince your team and sponsor to go there? Problem resolution sometimes calls for thinking time. Many years ago I did a Kepner Tregoe course and that formalised a process I had always instinctualy followed. What is it, and what is it not? Think! This is all about creativity and using your creativity to visualise and innovate. One step in front of the other, but if you want to dance, you may want to learn to step to the side, step back and twirl around a bit more.

tonycopp
tonycopp

If what is created is not made systematic as long as the business model exists, the value-add is an oxymoron.

office
office

I always do a practice of Visual Way of understanding the complete process required for project managmenet, technology implementations etc - before i communicate with my team members. I add my tech.leads for support...

casey
casey

Truly great PMs systematically use a number of iterative creative process to fashion solutions to the wide range of issues any project embodies. I would suggest that the notion of isolating "think time" is misplaced. If anyone needs to be in continuous think time, it's a PM. Cris Casey Exertus, Inc. 978 853-3360

biancaluna
biancaluna

I believe the notion of scheduling think time is actually quite critical, Chris. Which is why some truly great and creative minds including truly great PMs suggest it. And some truly great companies actually encourage it on a daily basis. I also believe the need for more scheduled think time is evidenced by the significant failure rate of projects related to skipping think time. The just do it time. I read a lot of project plans where my mind shouts - what were they thinking. Maybe they were not, so perhaps there is a place for scheduled think time.