Project Management Institute

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It's the same old team doing the same old thing in the same old way. And it's just not working. You've broken out the whiteboard for some marathon brainstorming. You've given the umpteenth lecture on “thinking outside the box.” But you're still coming up empty.

Fear not. Even the best of project teams sometimes fall into a rut. And it doesn't always take some expensive offsite team building experiences to get people back on track. Sometimes it's just a matter of changing the team's perspective or getting an outsider's opinion.

But first you're going to have to ferret out the root cause of the collective malaise. “The knack is not doing something about it, it is spotting that a problem is occurring in the first place,” says Brian Simpson, PMP, professional services manager at Softlab, a technology solutions consultancy in Solihull, England.

And many times the problem is caused at least in part by the project manager. “If your team gets into a rut, often it can be because you're in a rut,” he says.

Sometimes, though, team members can get you out of the funk—if you let them.


Empowerment can get teams thinking more creatively, says Thomas Malone, Ph.D., professor at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and author of The Future of Work [Harvard Business School Press, 2004].

In today's business world, people have more access to information than ever before and are better able to make informed decisions—so why not take advantage of that? “Giving team members the opportunity to solve problems on their own can cause them to be highly motivated, dedicated to the task and more creative in their problem-solving,” he says.

But when project leaders hold tight reins over innovative problem-solving and constantly shoot down ideas, Dr. Malone warns, you run the risk that team members will stop trying all together.

Mr. Simpson agrees. “The best way to stop people's creativity is to do nothing with their requests or ideas,” he says, adding that project managers may not even realize that's what they've been doing. “If your teams are not coming up with ideas, ask around. It may be that they have generated ideas but that they were not being used or they were told why it was a bad idea.”

TIP Be open to ideas from anywhere, suggests Merrill Lynch's Tom Rozko, who notes one new project idea came from a casual talk he had with a coworker. “It was a simple conversation that became a powerful joint venture.”

For those project managers willing to listen, team members on the front lines can be a font of innovative solutions.

Mr. Simpson recalls an incident when he was troubleshooting a software problem for a client. “I grabbed the technical person who knew the system and asked him for options. He was so accustomed to being told what to do by his project manager and not listened to, that at first he didn't know how to answer,” he says. But as they traveled together to the customer site, he opened up and together they started brainstorming solutions. “We solved the problem, made the customer happy and we ended up with a more motivated worker in the process.”

But before project managers start mining ideas from the team, they should first decide if creative thinking is what the project truly needs. “With some projects, like the implementation of an accounting system upgrade, you may just want speed and efficiency,” Dr. Malone says. “In that case, you don't want to encourage creative thinking.”

If a project does call for innovative thinking, project managers must also make sure they are open to new ideas from the team. “Some leaders think they are the only creative ones on the team and naturally shoot down other people's ideas,” Dr. Malone says. “If you are going to encourage creativity, you need to ask yourself, ‘Am I open to their ideas?'”


Once project managers are open to creative thinking as a way to turn a project around, there are many tools that can help the team see old issues in new ways. Whether they're trying to come up with a new product or figure out a way to bring a project in under budget, teams have long relied on brainstorming.

But typical brainstorming sessions can be ineffective if they're too random, with no strategy for collecting and responding to new ideas, says Kishore Dharmarajan, author of Eightstorm: 8-Step Brainstorming for Innovative Managers, and founder of Eureka Advertising, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“One person puts forward a suggestion, which is negated, added to, subtracted from or overturned by others. While this goes on, another person gets an interesting thought, which [he or] she shares with the team and the whole process continues,” he says. “While this is the single most-used technique by corporations around the world, there is no guarantee that you are going to come out with ideas.”


When all else fails, bring in a box of doughnuts or just take the whole gang out for drinks. “It gives people the chance to keep working or to stop for a short while and talk to each other,” says Brian Simpson, PMP, Softlab. “And that's what makes things happen.”


Instead, Mr. Dharmarajan suggests looking at a problem from a different angle.

The project team at the Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone (RAK FTZ), a Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates-based investment hub, was trying to promote its activities within the country and identify more investors. But in working with the team, Mr. Dharmarajan discovered most of the group's customers came from India, Canada, Korea and Lebanon, not from the surrounding communities.

“Their initial solution was to reach out to more local customers through advertisements and promotions,” Mr. Dharmarajan says. But his team suggested an entirely different path: RAK FTZ should set up offices outside of the emirate.

“Instead of asking, ‘How can we get more customers here?' we overturned their question to: ‘How can we get the customers to come to us?'” he says. RAK FTZ followed the suggestion, opening up offices in India and Canada—and doubling its customer base shortly thereafter. “It was a winning move,” Mr. Dharmarajan says.


“Creativity is welcome but you need to control and approve the final solution,” says Andy Doan, cofounder of FilmRiot, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He urges team leaders to be clear with team members about how their ideas will be used.

TIP “Reward creativity,” says Thomas Malone, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Whether it's with appreciation, celebration or good old cash, it shows you appreciate and value team members' input.


Although identifying ways to pull a team out of a slump are certainly helpful, it's even better to avoid one all together.

And one big reason project teams fall into creative ruts is that they work in isolation, says Deborah Ancona, Ph.D., faculty director of the Leadership Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We've been taught for years that an effective team needs to focus on teambuilding, goal-setting, communication and trust,” she says. “It's been burned into our brains, but it's wrong because it's only half-right.”

Effective teams must also establish links to the outside world. “To be innovative, you've got to be externally oriented and interacting across boundaries,” she says.

Teams need to reach outside their bubble with the launch of every project, says Dr. Ancona, author of X-Teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate and Succeed [Harvard Business School Press, 2007]. That means interviewing customers, reading blogs, tracking competitors' efforts, and discussing project goals with executives and other units across the enterprise. She also encourages teams to talk with other teams in the organization about product ideas they passed on.

“Engaging in divergent thinking from the start ensures creativity,” she says.

Sometimes, the brilliant idea is there—it just needs a little help.

A couple years ago, Merrill Lynch, in New York, New York, USA, had no product that traded in financially distressed companies. Team members saw it as a profitable area to leverage. They just needed to figure out a way to do it, says Thomas Roszko, director of cash equity trading at Merrill Lynch. “If handled correctly, [distressed markets] offer an opportunity for clients to make a lot of money.”

Originally the team had thought to bring the equities and fixed-income groups together to co-launch a distressed equity product. But those groups are two separate businesses with different operational approaches, he says.

Working with Dr. Ancona, the team brainstormed ways to take the idea in new directions and ultimately decided to create a Distressed Equity Desk, made up of people from both the equities and fixed income groups.

“After the fact, it seems like a common sense solution, but we wouldn't have done it that way without [trying the new methods],” Mr. Roszko admits. “It's just not how things are done at Merrill Lynch.”

The Distressed Equity Desk went on to be a very successful product, experiencing tremendous growth in its first two years. “Sometimes you get so focused on your job you don't see what's going on around you,” he adds. “This project opened our eyes.”

And sometimes that's all it takes. PM


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