Creativity — Part of the Process

PODCAST | With Guest Scott Berkun | 24 January 2018

Transcript

Narrator

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified with PMI, we'll help you stay ahead of the trends as we talk about what that means for the industry and for everyone involved.

Stephen W. Maye

I'm Stephen W. Maye for Projectifed with PMI. For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and PMI.org/podcast. In this episode we return to the topic of creativity with Scott Berkun, a former Microsoft project manager and bestselling author whose most recent work is entitled Dance of the Possible. In our first conversation Scott explained creativity's often neglected role in project management, how to apply creativity in a process driven environment, and why it will become even more important to your work in the future. Scott had many more insights to share, so we continue our exploration of creativity in project work right now.

Stephen W. Maye

So, kinda picking up from there, you have gone on record as saying "I don't belie...believe in creative block." You have said "I don't believe in creative block." So say a little more about that. So you have said "I don't believe in creative block", like you don't believe it's a thing.

Scott Berkun

No.

Stephen W. Maye

So tell, tell us what you mean by that.

Scott Berkun

Well, as long as you're conscious and your brain is functioning, you're thinking. There's ideas and thoughts going through your brain. That's just what it means to be alive and to be conscious. So at any moment if you told me come up with ten ideas for a book, or ten inventions that don't exist yet, the, the reason why people feel blocked, it's not about the inability to create, it's about some imagined standard they have for how good each idea needs to be. I could come up with ten terrible ideas for books simply by taking ten books that already exist and finding some negative word to add to them to make 'em sound terrible. Is that, is that a particularly great idea if I said, um, you know, Harry Potter for Project Managers as a book idea? No, it's not that must, but, but is that an idea? Sure it is. So if I sat down, if I sat down to...

Stephen W. Maye

I mean I'm not gonna invest in it, but sure.

Scott Berkun

Right, so that's where, that's where, that's when I say I don't believe writers' block exists. Uh, writer, write, writing's an easier example. If, if I feel blocked, quote unquote blocked, but I'm still alive and my fingers work, I should be able to sit down in front of a keyboard and write the sentence "I don't want to write right now. I don't want..." I can, I can write that 100 times over and over again, and I can still create something. It might be terrible and banal, but I can cre... I can create something. And invariably in the process of expressing my frustration by creating something, I will eventually get frustrated with being frustrated, and I'll write something else, and soon I'll find my way back to possibly creating or thinking about something useful. But being blocked is usually about the b... the some, for some reason a person has convinced themselves of how the quality level of every idea that comes out of their mind has to be really high. That's the problem. If you lower that bar enough, to the point at which, which I'm saying, which sounds kind of extreme, but to the point at which that any idea you have in your brain, whatever it is, is ok to write down or put on the whiteboard, that anyone who's still alive and conscious can put things on the whiteboard. And then at least you are, you are, you're in the game. You are paying attention. You, there's some possibility you'll discover something unexpected in letting those things come out of your mind. And so, um, in The Dance of the Possible, one of the chapters is purely about the importance of keeping a journal, that you have a private place for your ideas to go. No-one's ever gonna see it. It can be digital or on paper, but you, something you're gonna use every day, and you just get the habit of whenever you have an idea, whatever weird thing it is, maybe it's about work, maybe it's about a song you want to write, or a recipe you want to try, it doesn't matter, but you have a place where you allow these things in your brain to manifest in the world. That habit is one of the greatest assets you can have as someone who wants to create things or solve problems, because you're training yourself to appreciate and respect all the weird, random stuff that goes through your mind [LAUGHS], and your relationship with that part of your subconscious will get better, and that's the part of your brain that's most valuable in finding good and interesting ideas, your subconscious. So it's no surprise that scientists and engineers and artists and musicians and writers throughout history, many of them, not all of them, but many of them had a pr...practice of keeping a journal. For scientists they called it lab notes, but it's really the same thing. They're always noting what they saw, what they did, what they thought so they can come back to it later and learn from it and build on it.

Stephen W. Maye

Yeah, it's as if we need to keep creating excuses and clever names for a diary.

Scott Berkun

Yeah, I, uh, diary... people get weird, and this part, journal is the same thing, and I, I've taught enough people about this that a lot of people get this look on their face, especially in business audiences, when I suggest that you keep a journal and you write stuff in it. People's eyes get really wide and they get really concerned, and, and, and I, I often ask people like "what are you worried about?" And they're like, well they're afraid of, they're kind of afraid of having something so personal exist in the world. And what I tell, what I, what I offer people is that's fine, but if your goal is to be more creative, to be better at coming up with ideas for things, one of the most important relationship you can have, and you need to invest in, is your relationship with yourself, what you think about your own ideas. Because if you're so afraid of what might come out of your brain then the odds of you discovering something unusual or seeing something, something with better perspective is so much smaller because your inhibitions are really high. And reducing those inhibitions about what you think now increases what's gonna make it on the page, which will increase what you'll have the confidence to pitch your co-worker on, or your boss. So I, I am convinced that one of the best tools you can have for thinking, forget even creative, for thinking at all, being a better thinker, is keeping some kind of a journal.

Stephen W. Maye

I think that's brilliant. I think there's a lot wrapped up in there, and one of the things that you touched on, and I'm probably going to use different words than you did to describe it, but, but this idea of having enough confidence, and having enough of a conviction about your own kinda internal dialogue and your own thoughts, your own insights, your own ideas, that you're willing to first capture them for yourself so that you don't lose them, but then to bring them forward at the risk of them being judged by others, I think that's brilliant. I think a lot of great ideas go unexplored because we're not always willing to risk having those ideas judged by somebody else.

Scott Berkun

Yeah, and I think that's one of the skills that a good project manager has about forget, forget, again take the word creativity out of it, just for solving problems. If you're looking, if you have a hard enough problem to solve, and you have to, you're forced to be unconventional, then you want to allow people in the room to say things that don't quite make sense, or that are weird, or that are possibly embarrassing, because that's where you're gonna find, that's where the nugget of an idea that might lead to a solution is gonna come from. If everyone in the meeting, in the discussion to solve this really hard problem, only said things that they were 100 percent confident would make sense, you're not gonna find anything that interesting. Everyone's gonna be really conservative, and that's not... almost all of the literature about creative processes and why certain team are high perform, higher performing at working with new ideas and developing them, it's about trust, and comfort, that people know in these contexts it's ok to say things that might be a little embarrassing, or that might sound strange, or that might be weird, if for no other reason than the weirdness of me expressing that I think there should be a book called, you know, Harry Potter for Project Managers. It might make everyone in the room laugh at me a little bit, but that might open their mind to some other idea, that maybe there's some reference from Harry Potter that they know of that is applicable. There's some, you know, some magic spell in the book that they think of because I said it that leads them to another idea. That, that kind of open-ended process is, uh, inherent in, in creating a, a culture around a project where good ideas surface and get used.

Stephen W. Maye

So you have, uh, you have given me the perfect transition to what I wanted to ask you about next, which is the generation of ideas, the pursuit of creativity, the pursuit of effective problem solving in different cultures. Now I'm thinking cultures in terms of corporate cultures. Obviously there are differences across, uh, different cultures around the world as well, but specifically in cor...corporate cultures. So, you'll sometimes have a culture that is, that is stereotypically more rigid and structured. You may have some that are heavily biased toward efficiency and productivity because of the, because of their own history, because of the industry that they're in and so forth. You may have a culture that is highly resource constrained, so everything runs kinda very bare bones. Talk to me a little bit about, uh, the differences from culture to culture, and what that means, good or bad, to, uh, creative pursuits.

Scott Berkun

More often than not there is a way to use the tools of problem solving and creative thinking successfully in any kind of culture, 'cause any successful business, even if it's a very conservative business that mostly does things with an emphasis towards the status quo, there's still... whoever's, whoever my boss is, whoever the executive or the department head is, they have some idea of what, of... to come back to your point, of what good is. They have some idea of what that is. That could be reducing costs. That could be, um, it could be increasing profit. It could, there's some, there'll be some identifiable vision they have for what goodness is. Ok, great. As soon as I identify what that is, I can now apply the skills of creative thinking and problem solving underneath me, or with my own team to try to find new ideas and new suggestions that will live up to that idea of what is good. Now, I may not... when I, when I come around, when I come to my team and I want to build a culture there where people are, they see the goal, and they're willing to experiment, I might be very quiet about how I do those experiments. Maybe it's as simple as I give every employee a week, or a, a couple of hours every week. I budget my team's time so that I can afford this without my managers getting upset, but they gotta, every Friday afternoon there's some experiment that they are doing, or we're doing as a team, so we can learn something new. I don't have to broadcast it, don't have to make a big deal about it, we just go and do it. And if, if we develop an idea that is a prototype, and we test it out a little bit, and we, we figure, ok, this has some merit, at that point I take that idea and I go back to my boss, without talking that much about how I came up with it, or what process I used, or what problem solving method, I go back to my boss and say "hey, we're working on this re... this cost reduction goal, right?" He'll go "yeah of course, it's one of the most important things we're doing this year." I go "great. I have, I have a suggestion for you." And then I'd pitch him on the suggestion for reducing costs, and I'd be able to show we've done some legwork, we tried it out in this way. Lives up to his goal. Now I am putting the burden on him, or her, to say how much do they really believe in their idea of good. If they, if I convince them that this new idea is good, they're gonna want to use it, 'cause it's better than the old idea. They're not gonna be stuck in this notion of I'm violating convention or I'm breaking tradition. I haven't disclosed what processes I've used. That's just within my own team. Um, and then if they adopt the idea, I'm now set up so that next time I come up with an idea I'll have more support from my boss 'cause I've already proven I can deliver. And then maybe at some point, if I become a rising star, my boss and my peers might say "how do you, how do you do this? How do you come up with these interesting ideas?" And then I could show them the process that we used, which may run against the traditions of the culture, but it's been validated by the boss that this is a way to generate good ideas. That's how you get people to become more open-minded, by validation from the power structure, and then eventually validation by other people who wanna emulate the process you're using to create those kinds of results.

Stephen W. Maye

I love it, I love it. What's been your experience with getting people to kinda suspend their attachment a little bit and continue to leave the exploration open?

Scott Berkun

Yeah, uh, it's a complicated thing 'cause in, in some ways you, you do want a culture where people identify a decent solution quickly and go and do it. That's a healthy cultural attribute that people are, they're, they're able to, to work quickly and to find good, good enough solutions. Um, and arguably engineers and, and project workers, that's part of why they're in that industry, 'cause they, they're good at that. But, um, to, to your point, there are cases where you need to fi... that's, you're not looking for a quick answer. You want something again, like, the vision is to make this product or this service 50 percent better. Uh, the first idea, the first five ideas you come up with are not gonna be good enough. So, that, that falls, the burden falls on the project leader, uh, this question of what is good. They have to run meetings a little bit differently, that the standard for ending the conversation's going to be different. And also, on any team of people, let's say you have a team of ten people, there's probably gonna be a distribution of people's biases, uh, bias is the wrong word, of people's, um, uh, their tendencies. You're gonna have three or four people that, that are gonna tend the most to want the quick and, quick and easy solution. And you'll also probably have three or four people that are going to be better at striving for a be... a deeper, more complete idea. So if I had a process, if I had a, a project where I wanted a big, I'd probably start with a, a smaller group comprised of people who naturally extend, they wanna, they wanna go deeper. I'd probably start with them, and build some esprit de corps with them, uh, before I opened up the project to more people. Uh, one, one thing I'm recalling, this used to happen all the time when I worked as a project manager on software teams, that we'd be at the beginning of a project, and we start brains... we try to start brainstorming different solutions to a particular problem that we iden...identified customers were having, and in the conversation we were trying to come up with ideas. Engineers would very quickly go "oh, I, I've seen this code, I can just go and do it this afternoon." [LAUGHS]. And I, or they, they draw a diagram for how to solve it. And I go "no, no, no, no, no, we're not trying to solve the problemright now. We're just trying to talk about, like, concepts." And, and so, uh, eventually we created a rule for some of these meetings where you're not actually allowed to discuss a solution. We're gonna talk for, like, 30 minutes or 40 minutes, and you don't have to stay in the room. If this drives you crazy, you don't have to stay in the room.

Stephen W. Maye

Well I was gonna say, that would actually create physical pain for some people.

Scott Berkun

Right. And, and that's, and, uh, those people, they, they provide a great function to a project, but they're not the best people to be in the room when you're trying to explore the unknown, and you're trying to deliberately force yourself to not be so conventional, uh, they're gonna have a hard time. So, that's what I would do is I'd say you don't have to stay. What we're gonna do here though is we're gonna, we're gonna, we're gonna keep poking to find the cor, the corners. What unexplored ways are there to solve this problem? Uh, what ways from history has this problem been solved, like, 15 years ago? That's often a fun way to be creative is actually by, um... and organizations that get so obsessed with tradition. There's often a way to go back in time to how a problem was solved, like, 15 years ago in the same organization that was once used but got abandoned for the wrong reasons, and you can bring it back, and people go "we don't, this is too different." You can go "no, this is, this is how this was solved here..."

Stephen W. Maye

No, this is your own history. Right, right.

Scott Berkun

Yeah. So some... anyway. Uh, so, there, I think there are ways as a project lead to define the context of what the goal of a conversation is, and to establish the boundaries, and then defend them, and do it in a way that's not restrictive. People can choose to stay if they want to follow along, but, um, to weight the tables towards people who are, normally have an aptitude and a, um, they're drawn to those sorts of conversations, start with them first.

Stephen W. Maye

Yeah. I also know from your writing and speaking that you do not believe that there is any set of clever techniques that can solve people's larger creativity and problem solving problem. And that said, give us the low hanging fruit. So if, if I say look, uh, I've got to run a workshop next week. There's gonna be a lot of idea generation going on if it, if it works out well. What is one of your favorite, uh, idea generation techniques?

Scott Berkun

So, in this book, The Dance of the Possible, I tried to [INAUDIBLE] everything that I've learned about this subject in a practical sense of the word creativity in a short little book, and there's one chapter in the book that's the only chapter in the book that's strictly about idea generation, and I don't think idea generation is very hard, and you don't need that many different methods, so that chapter has probably seven or eight methods that are the basic ones that I think are the easiest to learn, most useful. But, um, uh, so I'll, I'll share a couple of those with you. So the first one is the opposite, what I call the opposite game, and the opposite game is when you sit down, so normally in these, the stereotype, the stereotypical, like, watered down brainstorming technique is you get into a room, someone presents a problem, and then everyone just throws out ideas which you write on the whiteboard until it gets, people start, the rate slows down, and then you write them up somewhere, and you hope that someone does something with the list after the meeting. So, um, those meetings often don't work very well because people are often too inhibited. They want to impress each other. They're not gonna be, not gonna take risks. So the oppose game is simple. You, you start, you, you have the same goal, so let's say I'm the project manager, I want to figure out how to improve customer satisfaction by 50 percent. That's what I know is the goal for the project. But instead of starting there, I'm gonna start with the opposite goal. [LAUGHS], I'm gonna tell the room full of my teammates "our goal for at least ten minutes is we're gonna try to come up with ideas to make customer satisfaction worse by 50 percent."

Stephen W. Maye

Yeah, yeah.

Scott Berkun

That is our goal, deliberately make it worse. And of course everyone will bark at this, it's kind of ridiculous, but I will insist. And at first people will be slow. They'll say things like, you know, we'll make the system crash every two minutes. We'll, we'll make it, we send people the wrong order. But then little by little people will get naturally very creative, because just by psychologically the fact that you're allowed to say bad things, the, the goal is to say things that are bad ideas, it opens up people's inhibitions. They will go to places they would never go simply being told a positive goal. And invariably, I've done this in companies and organizations all over the place, everywhere around the world, invariably it gets funny. There's something invariably funny and there's some, there's some tension that's relieved by discussing the possibilities of making things worse. So usually after five or six minutes people are laughing, the ideas are funny, and it peters out. Fine. Two things happened that are good. One, you got people laughing. They were, they were building on each other's ideas and being collaborative in the same way you want in a brainstorming session. So if you flip it around, now go "ok, let's talk about how to make things 50 percent better", you've built a good environment in the room. People feel safer, their, their endorphins are going because they've been laughing a little bit, so you've created a positive vibe in the room. That's benefit number one. Benefit number two, though, is if you look at that list of bad ideas, you can invert them, and you can make opposites of them. And often some of those opposites actually are good ideas. So I, I just made up off the top of my head, you could make it so that the, the system crashes every two minutes. Well, what if the goal was that you looked at the, how often the system crashes and you made the goal to make that happen a lot less? That's a totally reasonable goal, a totally reasonable, uh, thing you could put on a list of good ideas. And not all, not, not all those are gonna invert well, but every, usually in every session you'll get one or two ideas that's interesting in a way you probably would never have come up with if you wanted to find it head on.

Stephen W. Maye

Excellent. Scott, it has been a pleasure talking with you. It's, uh, it's been a lot of fun, and been, and you've brought I think great insight. Uh, we really try to deliver the kinda thinkers and provocateurs that have something important that this audience needs to be thinking about, and I think you have delivered that in spades.

Scott Berkun

Thank you, I hope you're right [LAUGHS]. We'll find out [LAUGHS].

Stephen W. Maye

We'll, we'll find out, won't we? Anyway, thanks again. We've been talking with Scott Berkun, uh, talking about creativity and the application of creativity and problem solving in the space of broad project management. Scott, thanks again. It's a pleasure, and we look forward, we look forward to talking with you again.

Scott Berkun

Thanks.

Stephen W. Maye

For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and PMI.org/podcast.

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