Project Management: Creative Problem Solving

Every successful project team exhibits some level of creativity when it comes to solving problems, but thinking outside the box isn’t always easy (or fruitful). How can you boost your creativity and help your team be more innovative, all while staying within the parameters of your project? We’ve put together some principles to start you on the path to creative problem-solving.

Thinking creatively

“I’m just not creative.” Sound familiar? Some of us seem to be creative by nature, while others have to work at it. If you’re the type that could use a little push, try these tips.

Take your time. Give yourself a chance to really think in-depth about your problem without the phone ringing or the e-mail alert popping onto your screen. Your office is full of distractions, and probably isn’t the best place to do your most innovative thinking. Instead, take a walk at lunchtime or make your commute more productive. Use a voice recorder to capture the flow of ideas, or bring along a notebook if you aren’t comfortable blurting out your thoughts.

Ask for help. Don’t be shy about asking mentors or colleagues for ideas (but don’t expect them to do all the work). You may find their varied experiences and different perspectives give you just the right nudge toward an entirely new solution to your problem. As always, remember to keep confidential or potentially sensitive information to yourself.

Encouraging creativity within your team

A few basic activities—done the right way—will give your team a creative boost.

Old-fashioned brainstorming. A variety of techniques are available to manage and facilitate brainstorming sessions, but the most important thing to remember is that now is not the time to stifle anyone’s creative juices. Banish egos, hierarchy, and the tendency to critique from every brainstorming session, and you’ll have moved your team forward in their quest to find the perfect solution. Any idea is welcome at this point, so encourage bad ideas, wild ideas, unworkable ideas, and just plain “what are you thinking?” ideas. Among them you’ll find a gem, but first you need a whole bunch of possibilities to sift through.

Question everything. Is your team making assumptions that are unnecessarily limiting, or just plain wrong? Are resources really set in stone? Is the project’s objective as specific as it sounds? Have assumptions from previous projects been unconsciously carried over that are no longer valid? Your team can’t possibly devise a good solution if they’re starting with incorrect assumptions, so examine your situation and the problem with new eyes.

Change perspective. How would your nearest competitor tackle this problem? Would a very small or very large company have a different approach? By viewing the problem from a different perspective, you may hit upon new and innovative solutions that a conventional mindset wouldn’t have yielded.

Checks and balances

Your solutions need to stay within some boundaries, such as those imposed by your organization, regulatory agencies, and local laws. Once your team has put together some potentially good ideas, it’s time to stack them up against your project’s parameters.

Write them down. The first step is to identify your team’s boundaries. Resource limitations such as staffing, funding, and time are good places to start. From here you can weed out solutions that can’t bend to meet your needs.

Push back. Once you’ve zeroed in on your project’s limitations, it’s time to determine which are solid and which are malleable. Can additional funding be secured? Could consultants stand in for some badly needed in-house expertise? Knowing how firm each limitation really is will help you formulate the perfect solution.

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