The Project Notebook

Product/Project Management and Strategic Thinking


Strategic thinking is about analyzing complex situations or making critical decisions involving large quantities of information. It includes a focus on “finding and developing unique opportunities to create value by enabling a provocative and creative dialogue among people who can affect…direction” (Center for Applied Research). The situations often require you to take a more high level look at your product or project to find a solution.

First off, this isn’t very easy when you are swamped with day-to-day firefighting. You will need to take some time out to think through the situations more clearly. Here are a 10 tips for developing capacity for this type of “out of the box” thinking and analysis:

1. Ask “What if?” Look at your ideas and decisions with a longer term view in mind. Think through multiple steps or stages of the solution to explore all the consequences and impacts.
2. Ask “why?” And keep asking. The 5 whys will help you drill down deep enough to get the full details or determine a “root cause”.
3. Seek counsel, not opinion. Everyone has an opinion, but you want to focus on those with proven experience and expertise. Be willing to accept criticism and look at the perspectives of others.
4. Get multiple perspectives. Our relatives and friends are more likely to tell us what we want to hear. Rather than ask one friend or current customer, show your product to 10 perspective customers that have never seen it before and get their feedback. This is the feedback you need to hear.
5. Challenge assumptions. Ask questions and examine things in more depth.
6. Find new ways to look at data. On top of that, gather new data. I recently expended a lot of effort of my own and others to build a more definitive client list. It allowed me to see the existing client base in a new way. This also helped to shape some ideas about how the client base has changed over time.
7. Think systems and processes. Observe how things work. In general, planning and systematic approaches add value through efficiency improvements.
8. Watch the competition. What are they doing differently? How are they structured and organized? How are their products different or better?
9. Volunteer. Use this to learn more about your organization or work with others to see their challenges and needs. My volunteer work with PMI always seems to afford me new ways of looking at myself and my profession.
10. Become a life long learner. Stay up to date on company and industry developments. Read books and magazines. Attend courses and seminars. Talk and interact with experts.

PM Innovation

One way in which Project Management is indispensible to business results is that it promotes and fosters innovation. When the project manager and the project team meet at the planning table to collaborate, special things can happen. It won’t happen every project, and it cannot be forced, but with the right time and encouragement, the project team will see its way clear to change.

Take the most recent “Project of the Year”, the Rocky Mountain Flats Closure. This former nuclear plant and arsenal was considered the worst of the worst — the most contaminated superfund site. The project team came up with innovations that completed the project 60 years and $30 billion under what was originally thought to be needed to clean up a site like this. Hundreds of buildings were demolished and decontaminated, tons of weapons grade radioactive materials were removed, and thousands of acres were decontaminated. While some of the land will remain radioactive for decades, much of it has been rendered sufficiently safe to extend a wildlife refuge which is home to at least one endangered species.

With results like this, its no wonder the federal Office of Management and Budget has mandated that all government projects will be guided by professional project managers beginning in 2008. While you cannot mandate innovation, having the right people to guide projects and plan them appropriately will increase the chances of having a project with better than average results.

The project manager of the Rocky Mountain Flats Closure project will be at the PMI, San Diego conference in September. You might want to consider dropping in to hear the full story.

Survivor: Maui

Aloha! Here I am in the tiki torch light of Mama’s Fish House in Paia — one of my last vacation stops before returning to the mainland. After two days at home it was out on the road to an out-of-state client. Eight plane flights, a helicopter tour, and multiple ear-popping drives (Haleakala is over 10,000 feet) really did a number on my sinuses, but now I’m rested, relaxed, and ready to dig in again. Of course I was always on the lookout for stories to bring home from Maui as well.

As project managers, we’re all innovators who help guide project teams to getting the job done. I couldn’t find a better illustration of cooperation and innovation than this photo. These are the cliffs of Moloka’i, one of the two islands of Maui. Moloka’i claims the record for the world’s tallest sea cliffs on its north shore and the picture shows just a small portion of them. What’s of more interest though is in the lower left hand corner. You will see a complete home — quite the project for this 38 mile stretch of high sea cliffs.

The children who grow up here are home schooled — there’s no school bus and the only way to civilization is by a long hike up the cliffs or by boat. The owners started building a shack with materials they backpacked to the area. A helicopter landed one day to check out what they were doing, and offered to fly in everything they needed if the pilot could store tanks of fuel (there is still no helicopter fuel available on Molokai according to my pilot). Since that time, the pilot and the homesteaders have maintained a mutually agreeable relationship. This is innovation at its finest!

By the way, can you imagine being a child in Hawaii and asked to name the state fish? Although the designation lasted for only five years, most Hawaiians still consider the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (rectangular triggerfish) to the best state fish (there are more than 15 contenders all unique to the islands). Contrast this with the Nene, the Hawaiian goose and state bird with the simple four character name!

Over the coming weeks, as part of the blog improvements planned, I’m going to focus for a while on control of project costs and risks. Expect to see more hard hitting tips, tools, and templates. I don’t want to give away all the secrets, but in late September or early October, I’m going to give away a complete PMP® Exam Prep course, including a book, exam simulation CD, and “cheat” sheet. I also have a “cheat” sheet for a runner-up, so be sure and stay tuned for how to enter the giveaway! More big plans over the weeks to come, so be sure to come back! Mahalo!

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP