Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Orange Ropes (Managing Impossible Projects, Part 4)

The following series is adapted from a keynote I delivered at the Washington, DC, chapter of the Project Management Institute back in August. Parts also come from my book Creative Project Management (with Ted Leemann), published by McGraw-Hill. 

Sometimes in organizations there is a form of relentless optimism, the corporate cheerleader equivalent of “failure is not an option.” I appreciate the motivational value of positive thinking, but there’s a huge brainstorming value that’s often overlooked in negative thinking. You can’t figure out which constraints may be illusions until you make a list of constraints in the first place.

When people perceive the job they have been given is impossible, or the conditions under which they must labor are unfair or insufficient, it’s usually not a good idea to push optimism down their throats — too often, it backfires and makes the situation worse. It’s no use telling people not to think of negative things, it’s like me telling you not to think about the color orange or about an elephant.

(Are you thinking about an orange elephant now?)

Orange Ropes 

Speaking of orange elephants, I don’t know how many of you have ever trained an elephant, but if you want to train an elephant you start with a baby elephant and an orange rope. The color is very important.

You tie the orange rope around the leg of the baby elephant, and fasten that to a stake in the ground. The baby elephant tries to get away, but he can’t break that orange rope.

Over the years, the baby elephant grows to full size, but he’s learned his lesson: you can’t break an orange rope. Now, you can take some flimsy, rotten rope, spray paint it orange, and the elephant will treat it as unbreakable. But if the elephant ever figures it out…he’s free.

Some constraints are fake, and others are real…but they change. Experience can be a wise teacher, or it can blind you to a new and different reality. That’s why I believe that negative brainstorming is a hugely overlooked tool for managing difficult or impossible projects.

Negative Brainstorming

A negative brainstorming process works just like a conventional brainstorming session. Participants offer potential ideas on a specific topic with no criticism or evaluation of ideas or suggestions allowed. The major difference in negative brainstorming is that the specific topic —and the focus of ideas — is negative.

In conventional brainstorming, the focus is on finding creative ways to solve the problem. In negative brainstorming, the focus is on finding all the obstacles, barriers, and events, including internal, external and self imposed, that could prevent completing the project as currently defined.

Here’s a list of good questions to get a negative brainstorming session started.

  • Why is this project impossible?
  • What are all the things we can’t possibly do?
  • What are all the things others can do that will prevent us from accomplishing this project?
  • What ideas can we think of that absolutely are not worth trying?
  • What’s the worst possible decision we could make right now?
  • What could we do to turn this project into a complete catastrophe?
  • Why are we doomed to fail?

In asking a negative question, I don’t mean to imply that the questions are necessarily accurate descriptors of reality. They don’t have to be. What the questions have to do is to correspond to the cognitive biases that keep us from finding a solution.

Doomed, But Hopeful

We may not in fact be “doomed to fail,” but a negative brainstorming exercise on “Why are we doomed to fail?” is a powerful way to bring the most serious risks and issues to the surface where our team can deal with them.

Negative questions like these can be utilized with all sorts of brainstorming processes, or techniques. Some approaches include having the participants respond in a round-robin style. Another approach is a simple free-for-all where participants offer ideas randomly. The leader can set a time limit or a target total number of ideas before concluding the process. The important thing is to concentrate on finding all the negative possibilities, rather than stop and try to solve the barriers as they are identified during the brainstorming phase of the process.

In negative brainstorming, it’s vitally important to encourage participants to offer even the most outrageous possibilities that could negatively impact the project. Our goal is to elevate concerns from the subconscious background into the conscious spotlight of project management, and we can only do that if we recognize what they are in the first place. If people feel criticized for stupid suggestions, the total number of suggestions will go down, including the not-stupid ones. That’s why, as in all brainstorming processes the initial phase is to gather ideas — not solve problems or criticize specific contributions.

After completing the negative brainstorming session, the evaluation process begins by taking each negative idea in turn and determining (1) if you can overcome the obstacle, (2) if so, how, and (3) if not, what then?

At least some (perhaps most) of the constraints, barriers, and issues you identify will turn out to be both real and solid. That’s completely normal. You are looking for the exceptions. In positive brainstorming, most ideas turn out to be of limited utility, but if you get one winner it can be a game changer.

In negative brainstorming, if most constraints turn out to be solid, but there are exceptions, the project can go from impossible to possible — occasionally even easy — in the blink of an eye.

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