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Genius PMO: Make Every Project Manager A Genius (Part I)
By Chris Niccolls

If your Project Management Office (PMO) was staffed only by geniuses, you would get a lot more done. In the real world, we get a staff with limitations… limits on what they know, how much they can figure out on their own and how much time they have to apply their talents to every issue. What if you could speed up the genius process? What if you could make more geniuses and get them working on truly inventive projects? This ongoing series will show you how to be a genius, or at least look like one. We’re going to start off this series by looking at the inventive process itself. After all, if a genie gave you just a single wish, you would probably wish for more wishes. So, let’s find out how we can get all the wishes we want!

Whichever school of project management you follow, every PM process starts out with the opportunity to brainstorm and develop new solutions. However, PM itself doesn’t tell us how to be consistently creative. To make it even more difficult, the PM leading the project team may not be a subject matter expert and may be uncomfortable trying to lead the develop of a solution for a process they do not understand. Wouldn’t it be great if some highly talented individual spent most of their life developing a highly flexible system for figuring out the most brilliant solution to any problem? Well, today is your lucky day!

Genrikh Altshuller was a Stalinist era engineer who wanted to understand how new inventions were… invented. He studied patents, which are a pretty good proxy for creativity. Altshuller came to two conclusions. First, there are only 1,500 possible problems that an invention can fix, so there may only be 1,500 types of physical problems in the world. Second, and even more importantly, there are only 40 solutions to these problems. If you ever played 20 questions… one person thinks of something, and the other asks up to 20 questions to figure it out… think of a session with the members of your team trying to play “40 questions” to develop the genius solution to your problem.

The 40 questions were developed by examining tens of thousands of patents. Because the focus was on inventions the questions are rooted in physical properties, color, size, weight, density, shape, speed, etc. These same questions will still make sense in your environment, but you need to customize them a bit so that the brainstorming sessions make more sense. I’m not going to go through the whole list, but I’ll go through the first few to show you how this works. Think of each question as turning on a random light that illuminates a small part of a dark warehouse. Some lights may have create more glare than useful illumination, and multiple lights may be required to fully illuminate a given problem.

Altshuller’s system is called TRIZ, pronounced “Trees”. In English, it stands for Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (maybe we should call it TIPS?). In addition to the “40 Questions” approach, you just need to follow two other principles. First, the answer to your problem already exists, but will probably need to be adopted to your specific situation. Second, you cannot compromise! If you develop a solution that only solves a bit of your problem or is almost useful, it will probably fail; you need to develop a solution that significantly solves your problem, even if you need to repeat the TRIZ process multiple times. Let’s take a closer look!

  1. Segmentation: Would your center work better if you broke it into segments? Perhaps you would separate out graphic heavy work vs. pure text work. Alternatively, some work is transcription (speech to text) and some is word processing (text editing), separating these services may cause an improvement. (Problem: will having two or more service groups increase administrative costs?)
  2. Taking out: You have a document center, with all of your workers in one location. Perhaps the customer service staff and the intake function should move out of the center, and relocate to where your clients are. By sitting away from the center, they may become more connected to your clients and more objective about complaints. (Problem: does the client have space for these positions?)

  3. Local quality: Your staff currently works in three shifts, 9am-5pm, 5pm-1am, and 1am-9am. However, the peak “band” of work is from 12:30pm to 8:30 pm. The location in this case is a time… 12:30 to 8:30. If you change staff hours and made half of the 1st shift start later, and half of the 2nd shift start earlier, you would have a “saddle shift” that expands your resources when they are needed the most. (Problem: do you have seats for everyone?)

  4. Asymmetry: Your firm services different markets… let’s say US, Europe, All other locations and high-value accounts. Internal clients in different industry groups may have different needs, but your centralized service offers each group the same services. Consider creating dedicated services for each group… or at least for the groups that use your services most often. (Problem… will decentralized services be less efficient?)

  5. Merging: Your firm has a main center, in your headquarters. However, some staff members reside in branch offices. Staff in branch offices don’t have the same access to training and do not have dedicated managers. If you moved all positions into one the main center, you may be able to improve service. (Problem: will you be able to gain support for terminating staff in one location and hiring in another?)

As you can see from the first five, these questions are very general. You just need to apply them to a specific problem. And you still have 35 other questions to present to your team. Once you’ve gone through all 40 questions, you then have just a few more steps to go through to develop your genius ideas. We will go through those steps in our next blog. But for now, that’s my Niccolls worth!

Chris Niccolls is a Project Manager with process improvement expertise, who can drive change by driving communication. He has managed large, global operations; built Project Improvement Offices (PMOs) and been a hands-on project manager. He can identify why operations don’t work, and turn around poorly performing services. You can read more from Chris on his blog.

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