Nov 27 2007

Paradox and the Project Manager

Sometimes taking a counterintuitive approach can help pave the way to better tech project results.

H. Evan Woodhead,
IT management consultant

Working in technology, we become so accustomed to logic as a tool for making things work effectively, efficiently and reliably that we forget that logic does not always hold sway outside our systems.

There are many logical techniques for defining problems, choosing among known alternatives, implementing solutions and reviewing results. But when it comes to idea generation — the heart of problem solving — traditional models have little to offer. That’s because innovative solutions to problems rarely result from step-by-step logical processes, which hobble intuitive leaps and prevent the interaction of opposing ideas.

Remember also that IT projects are about people as well as about technology, and people are not inherently logical. They sometimes want things that make sense only to themselves.

Early in my career, for example, it was common to meet senior executives who had never touched a typewriter, let alone a computer, and were determined to make it to retirement without doing so. In one memorable standoff, a dynamic young CEO locked horns with his pasture-bound executives over an executive information system. The breakthrough came when a company analyst suggested that the IT staff think about the computer as though it was a TV. The rest of the team told him to stop clowning around and get back to work, but he was undeterred.

“You don’t think these guys get out of their recliners to change the channel on their TVs, do you?” said the analyst. “They activate a system, choose one of the preprogrammed options and receive the corresponding information without touching the TV.”

Based on that thinking, the team built a menu-driven reporting system to drill down to the desired data, with a set-top box that let execs make selections using a TV-style remote control. The system was implemented successfully — and without the chieftains having to actually touch their computers.

If you change your point of view on a problem, new solutions will come into view. The end product will need to work logically when implemented. But the thinking process must sometimes move beyond the logical and linear if you want inspiration.

The first step is to identify and release anchors: ideas, perceptions, beliefs and fears that weigh down our thinking. Anchors are subtle and pervasive, often based on our thoughts as to what we perceive as “true” or necessary but with little regard for what is correct.

Some brainstorming techniques can help us become aware of our anchors and go beyond the restrictions of logic:

Question Experience: Common sense suggests that what worked once will likely work again in a similar situation — and people will leap for the familiar solution before they’ve thoroughly examined the problem. Going with the flow of past success curbs opportunities for innovation and excellence. Ask if you are addressing the problem at hand or only acting out of habit.

Seek Conflict: Examining differing opinions often reveals unquestioned assumptions that weigh down an individual, team, organization or industry — and stand in the way of progress.

Stop Working: There’s a reason the best ideas always seem to hit when you’re in the shower. Our subconscious processes information and works on problems even when we’re thinking about other things. But when our mental processes are abuzz with daily minutiae, there’s little room for new ideas to be heard. Take a break and listen for them.

Start at the End: Instead of focusing on a seemingly insurmountable problem, envision a time when you’ve found the solution and ask: What occurred to make this possible?

Defy logic? Question common sense? Cultivate contradiction? Such paradoxical approaches to problem-solving hardly seem tailored to engineers and IT managers. Yet these methods of unconventional thinking can be the key to successful IT projects.

H. Evan Woodhead is an information technology management consultant and author of The Power of Paradox: Using Contradiction, Conflict and Chaos to Achieve the Impossible.