Project Leaders Solving Complex Problems Top Tricks Tips

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

We live in extraordinary times—with a level of disruption and complexity that was once unimaginable. Exhilarating? Absolutely. Exhausting? Slightly—especially when project leaders are unsure of how to solve the problem at hand.

RAQUEL SELEM MOREIRA

Most complex projects could have 1,000 variables, and it happens once you start the project seeking the solution instead of seeking to define the problem. But to get rid from 1,000 variables and streamline your focus without [overwhelming] your creative process, we have to start the project by understanding the problem instead of planning 1,000 variables.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

With the world moving at warp speed—and problems flying in from every direction—many project leaders are (understandably) looking for help: Nearly 40 percent of respondents in PMI’s Pulse of the Profession® report said enterprise-wide adoption of complex problem-solving tools and techniques was a high priority. That also means looking at new ways of working, like the much-buzzed-about design thinking.

On that front, PMI partnered with tech pioneer and entrepreneur Tom Wujec to develop a Wicked Problem Solving course and toolkit to help project leaders sharpen their creative problem-solving and collaboration skills. You can learn more about it at PMI.org—and a little bit later, you’ll hear how Marianna Sarmiento is putting the design thinking principles she picked up into action.

But right now we’re heading to Rio de Janeiro, where Raquel Selem Moreira is a design and innovation project manager at global pharmaceutical and dermocosmetics company Pierre Fabre Group. Raquel’s team works on branding and product packaging projects, and she shares how she uses design thinking—and experiences outside of the office—to solve complex problems.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

We know change and disruption are making projects more complex. How do you think about complexity when it comes to your own projects?

RAQUEL SELEM MOREIRA

To understand the whole complexity of the project, you have to understand the whole environment of the project, which includes the problem to be solved and under which environment you will lead the project.

In the context of Pierre Fabre, as well as a lot of other organizations that run under traditional structure instead of matrix, the team assigned to the projects I am [managing] cannot report to me as project manager, which increases the complexity of leading projects. Once I have to manage and gather different employees from different areas, lead and engage them throughout the project’s life cycle.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Your training is as a visual designer, so let’s talk about design thinking and complexity. How do you design projects to make sure you’re accommodating all of the specs and dynamics and risk factors?

RAQUEL SELEM MOREIRA

The first thing is to map the environment in which the project is inserted, like deadline, resource, budget, approval steps—very important—and who has to be involved. It must be done during the initial phase of the project.

In my case, most of projects I lead have the creative stage, so I use to design a project under a hybrid project management approach, which involve waterfall and agile, so I can manage the operational tasks while the creative process is running through sprints without exceeding the project deadline, so I can accommodate all the various aspects, dynamics and risks and deliver the project on time.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What’s a specific example of a project where you’ve been able to design around some complex challenges and then delivered an innovative result?

RAQUEL SELEM MOREIRA

I was assigned to lead an organizational project to solve a critical and complex problem that had been impacting the quality and delivery time of new product’s packaging. This project was assigned to me with the previous diagnosis that the problem happens in consequence of the lack of available packaging resource. The project’s goal was to build the first internal physical packaging library so that it would solve the problem.

As a designer by nature, I think to myself, packaging development involves different areas from the office to the industry. Maybe the problem is more complex than just a lack of resource, so I set the first stage of the project, based on design thinking. This was an understanding stage instead of going straight to suppliers and find new resource. In this phase, I used design thinking in a guided empathy dynamic, led by the project team to understand the problem by the standpoint of those most impacted by the problem—the marketing team.

So the marketing team raised all the critical points of the problem, and then we converged this information. And the diagnosis showed that the problem was coming from internal process, not from external resource. It was a lack of connection between different areas working throughout the same project. If the goal of the project is to solve the problem, a packaging library is not the right solution. The solution was a huge change management project.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

I love that—the empathy stakeholder piece. Obviously, doing that step can add complexity to the project, but why is it worthwhile?

RAQUEL SELEM MOREIRA

This empathy dynamic provides the team that’s developing the project to really understand the problem by the standpoint of those who [are] being impacted by the problem. So, as I was saying, the beginning of the project, the diagnosis of the project was made by internal hypothesis that the problem was the lack of resource. But the main stakeholders that [were] being impacted by the problem [were] not consulted to check what is the problem by [their] standpoint. So this empathy dynamic helped us help the team to understand the problem and go toward the better solution.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Too much complexity is never a good thing, so you might break a giant, complex project or series of problems down into sprints or sections or elements. If you’re on a project like that, how do you direct the teams working on those separate components so that they all have freedom to innovate, but also to make sure that they're operating in a way that connects with the larger whole?

RAQUEL SELEM MOREIRA

Yes, choosing the project management approach that better fits to the project’s needs allows the creative team to test different solutions, even within a waterfall approach—in other words, projects with deadlines. So, in order to provide the team with freedom to create, test and iterate solutions while the project is running on a fixed deadline, I use to manage the project under a hybrid management approach. So I can manage the whole project under waterfall while I bring [an] agile approach for the creative process, and I slice the creative process into sprints in order to improve the solution and also foresee operational risks in advance.

STEVE HENDERSHOT 

What advice would you give to other project leaders working to solve complex problems?

RAQUEL SELEM MOREIRA

When you have a complex problem to be solved, it doesn’t mean that you have to develop a complex solution. It means that you have to develop a solution that will solve your problem. If you develop a solution that will solve your problem, even the simplest solution ever, you truly innovated and you truly solve your problem and did a great job. It’s project management. You don’t have to develop a complex solution. You have to understand your problem and bring the better solution.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

In addition to leading projects, you are also a pretty serious Muay Thai fighter, so are there any parallels you’ve drawn between how you approach training or fighting and how you think about project leadership?

RAQUEL SELEM MOREIRA

Yes. I love this question because it’s totally related. So I’ve been training Muay Thai for eight years, and the fights showed me how important it is to think rationally, fast and strategically, even under a huge pressure, and never to react by impulse. And also, listen [to] and trust my team. I’m going to give you a real example that happened to me in a fight, and the same happens in project leadership.

I was training for a fight under a technical strategy, and I knew in advance that my opponent will come aggressively walking forward, so I focused my strategy on walking back and keeping the distance. If it was a project, I would be foreseeing the risk in order to adapt the strategy.

So, my plan was to frustrate and tire her so I could keep my distance and attack back. Okay, great strategy, let’s execute my project. When I got into the ring, I realized that the ring was smaller than I was expecting, so in the third step back I was cornered because there was not enough space behind me. And I got a sequence of punches in my face, and I thought, “I have to change my strategy now. Let’s understand her game.”

Immediately, I noticed that she was only punching in a straight line, so I quickly started to punch, take my head off the straight line. Then, in the end of the first round, I listened to my corners, adapted the strategy, and by the beginning of the second round, I knocked her down in the exact moment that one of my corners told me to kick.

What made me achieve my goal even under unforeseen events was to keep thinking rational, fast and strategically under pressure and also listen and trust my team. All of this learning is the base of the project leadership.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

That is awesome.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

The good old counterpunch is one way to tackle a problem in the ring—but project leaders are conjuring up other ways to crack complexity in the business world. Take Marianna Sarmiento. At the beginning of the pandemic, she found herself grappling with an issue that nearly every project leader can relate to: taking a team of 4,000 at Riverside County Department of Public Social Services in California virtual.

Marianna talked about that transition with Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt, as well as how Wicked Problem Solving has helped her find creative solutions to some thorny challenges.

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HANNAH SCHMIDT

As a leader, how do you approach problems and problem-solving on projects, and what are some of the complex problems that you and your teams have had to solve?

MARIANNA SARMIENTO

That’s a really good question. There are so many different opportunities for growth, different opportunities for learning. I think an open and a positive mindset is probably the first approach in making sure that folks are comfortable raising issues and folks are looking at it in a progressive and open way.

There are a variety of different complex situations that are going on that we’re working on—one of them being we just want to find new solutions and new ways of approaching our service delivery model. Because we’re so large, the department has different units, different programs, different statutory requirements, different funding strains. However, we’re trying to, in many cases, serve some of the same population or some of the same clients, and it would be great if we could find a seamless approach to offering services to our community.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

One of the projects you had at the onset of the pandemic was transitioning this really large team to remote work. Tell me a little bit about that. What are some of the challenges or problems that you faced, and how did you overcome or solve them?

MARIANNA SARMIENTO

I think that, for many people, the pandemic was just something really new. We didn’t know the impacts. We really didn’t know the duration of the impact. So it was very important to do our very best to take care of our workforce so then we could be of service to our community that I believe needs us more than ever during this pandemic, and resources were limited. We had resources that were limited in buying new equipment—new computers, new laptops. And also we weren’t structured in our buildings for a pandemic. So one of the things that we had to quickly resource is just how do we find a way to take care of this large workforce and send them home or change our business model so that not only can they continue offering services but that the public can access our services? So we worked with state officials to help us with an app stream to be able to continue to offer services via an app versus offering services directly from our buildings.

And that was really great, except that we didn’t have all the laptops we needed to be able to send home. That took a lot of effort for the volume of folks that were trying to telework and, in addition to that, get our buildings ready for the public to be able to use them in a more improved or safe manner that was in compliance with [the] pandemic.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

And during this time of transition, you took the PMI Wicked Problem Solving course. Why did you take it?

MARIANNA SARMIENTO

I first saw the course during a demonstration at a conference. It was such a wonderful opportunity to see a different way of communicating, different tools. When you’re trying to get through a complex situation—and now you’re having to go forward in a telework environment—we just needed new tools to be able to really solution and problem-solve. And I think Wicked Problem Solving was a new way of looking at things. It really is a unique tool that cuts to the right questions. You want to be able to ask the right questions so you can get quickly to good solutions.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

So now how are you and your teams using Wicked Problem Solving?

MARIANNA SARMIENTO

I think as leaders we really do want to bring tools and new innovations and new strategies for our teams, and I think Wicked Problem Solving is going to be a nice way that this department will have an opportunity to do something different and a very high-quality way of thinking.

We are in the infancy of deployment of the training program, and so we’re really excited about it. Folks are now talking about it, and that’s exactly what we want. We want it to gain its own momentum so that they can begin sharing the tools.

What’s nice about it is that it has varying tools that get us ready for good conversations. So one of the conversations that we’re trying to have is, “What’s your North Star? What’s your vision?” I’ve got over 14 units in my division—very unique, very diverse. Different work. It doesn’t really go together at times, and so what I’m looking for is ways for these units to become innovative, to look at what their North Star is and to find solutions that are creative. So the solution isn’t always adding new staff, isn’t always growing your team. It could be adding new tools. It could be having better conversations so that the staff get included and can have unique, innovative ideas that we can find new ways to solution.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

As you’re using this new problem-solving strategy, I want to ask, has your approach changed over your career?

MARIANNA SARMIENTO

It has changed, and I think it’s a good thing. I think we have more tools than we’ve ever had before as leaders. And tools like Wicked Problem Solving get us to the right questions and help us get to the right answers so we really focus on the solutions and not just that you’re having a conflict or you’re having a difficulty or a challenge. That is so unique and so beneficial. And leading these projects, leading these teams, is that we want to make sure people are solutioning and staying positive during those processes because problems and challenges will always exist. However, if we start them with an open mindset, there’s always the possibilities.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

A world beset by ever-increasing complexity can be daunting. But then again, that’s exactly why organizations need creative, collaborative project leaders like you.

NARRATOR

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