Have you ever heard the phrase, “You need to think outside of the box?” I have. In fact, I have heard it too much. I recently got to thinking about the phrase and realized what is really being said and how it is detrimental to efficient project management. First, it is not demonstrating that a person has thought outside of the box as in, “Look, I used this alternative scheduling method and saw a way to deliver early.” It’s more of, “I need you to determine a way to deliver early.”
Second, it takes the standard and process out of SOP. Without those, you are left with operating, and that just doesn’t work. The saying has roots in the simple puzzle shown below. It seems unsolvable until you draw lines that extend outside of the box and it demonstrates some critical thinking.
As a Project Manager, we need success that is repeatable, documentable, and consistent. This method of thinking always puts the solution ahead of the process. It’s a lot like high school math, you can answer the question, but many times you can’t explain how you got there. Many people instinctively know the answer, or can do it in their head, but explaining it can be difficult. Part of project control is using consistent methods to ensure the same results. Thinking out-of-the-box is a method to use when you experience a new or unique problem that requires critical thinking beyond the standard. It comes into play when you have to solve the unsolvable. It doesn’t apply, as many people think, to new thinking when applying to the same old problems.
Now let’s discuss standardization (repeatability.)
As Project Managers, one of the first things we look for in an organization is processes. If these don’t exist, or they are not documented, it’s time to start doing so. Begin by asking questions of your experts. I find using basic flow charts to be invaluable here. After creating these, or procedure manuals, review with the team. Get sign off by project sponsors or stakeholders within the organization. Now you have your standard operating procedures (SOP.)
The next requirement, documentable, is easy.
Can the person responsible for the task(s) document how they do it? If they can, great. But, have they? If not, refer to repeatability. Do you have a set of procedures you follow for every project of a similar type? Do you have checklists? What about templates? These are all tools used in project control. We rely on them to create efficiency in a project. It goes back to not wanting to reinvent the wheel every time you do a project.
The final requirement is consistency.
This plays entirely into your processes. If you follow the same process, the outcome should be highly predictable. The first two requirements feed into this. Processes and documentation will help you build consistency every time. Your role as the Project Manager is to make sure that both processes are being followed, and the team is documenting everything. This becomes your SOP and should be hammered into the team.
Thinking outside the box is not a bad, or discouraged activity, but from a time and efficiency standpoint, I like to rely on the practice of consistency. It’s nice to be a problem solver, but consistency can be a problem avoider. Let me know your thoughts – [email url=”firstname.lastname@example.org” class=””]email@example.com[/email]
JEFF L. CHAMBERLAIN, PMP | Project Manager
Jeff comes to KTL Solutions with an extensive background in healthcare IT, technical consulting, and telecommunications. He has been a project manager for almost 20 years, holding certifications from the Project Management Institute as a Project Management Professional, from the Management and Strategy Institute as a Six Sigma Lean Professional, and he holds a Scrum Master Certification from the Scrum Alliance. He has managed both hardware and software implementations for both the government and private sectors, in industries such as healthcare, insurance, telecommunications, staff augmentation, supply chain and shipping.
Jeff has provided training for clients globally, working in Europe, Russia, North and South America on various topics from system optimization to wireless theory and design. He possesses a Bachelor’s Degree in Technical Writing from the University of Baltimore.