If your Project Management Office (PMO) was staffed only by geniuses, you might get more work done. In the real world, we work with a staff that has 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. Wouldn’t life be easier if you could make geniuses when you needed them and staff them 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 development of a solution for a process they do not understand. Wouldn’t it be great if a highly talented individual spent most of their life developing a flexible system for figuring out the most brilliant solution to any problem? Well, somebody did!
Genrikh Altshuller was a Stalinist era naval engineer with a problem. During World War II, the Soviets need to produce as much high quality war as materials as possible. New patents could either create better processes to build equipment, or could help build better equipment. Altshuller realized that patents are documentation for inventions, and inventions are essentially distilled innovation. If you could develop a process that drove innovation, you could speed up the development of new patents.
This sounds like a great idea, but how do you create rules for “innovation?” Isn’t innovation about creativity, and isn’t creativity one of those things that you just have to be born with? As an engineer, Altshuller approached this as an engineering problem. He looked at examples of innovation, and extracted a set of rules about how inventions (innovations) work. So, he looked at patents, tens of thousands of patents. For each patent, he identified how the new invention was different from the previous invention it replaced. He then created logical categories and subcategories that described each type of improvement.
When he was done, Altshuller came to three conclusions. First, for every type of invention, several very similar inventions already exist. When you are ready to create your invention, it is extremely likely that it was already invented (but in another field, under a different name) and the other invention might be superior to your own. So, do some research before you try to invent a new solution. Second, every invention ever created (at least up until the 1940’s) was created to solve one of only 1,500 types of problems. The number of problems in the world are finite, and not infinite. That’s a new idea! Third and last, in order to develop the best solution to solve one of those 1,500 problems you only need to answer a maximum of 40 questions or issues. And Mr. Altshuller gave us that list of 40 questions.
That’s it? Ask 40 questions and you have a solution to just about any problem in the world? Well, yes. That’s exactly it. Have you ever played 20 questions? One person thinks of something, and the other asks up to 20 questions to figure what it is. Altshuller’s system uses 40 questions (or issue areas) to TRIZ it out… think of a session with the members of your team trying to play “40 questions” to develop the genius solution to your project problems. The more expertise and knowledge you bring to this process, the better the solution, but even if you are not an expert in that area, this process will still create a pretty good solution.
Altshuller’s system is called TRIZ, pronounced “Trees”. Translated into English, it stands for Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (maybe we should call it TIPS?). This 40 question system was developed from tens of thousands of patents. Because patents are for “physical” inventions, the questions are rooted in physical properties: color, size, weight, density, shape, speed, etc. These questions will make sense in your environment, but the greater your personal knowledge of the area you are working on, the greater your ability to customize these questions. In your brainstorming sessions… when your team gets together to develop a solution… greater customization will lead to more efficient solutions. I’m not going to go through the whole list, but we will look at a few questions so that you can see how simple this is.
One other important rule about TRIZ is that you cannot compromise your solution. In the non-TRIZ world, when you create a solution that doesn’t fully solve a problem, you either go with the best (flawed) solution, or you say, “Well, it doesn’t look like any solution is good enough. Let’s revisit this in a year.” In TRIZ, it is understood that any simple solution will probably create new problems, that in turn need to be addressed. If your first solution doesn’t completely solve the problem, or if it creates new problems, then you initiate another round of TRIZ… and apply it to your previous solution. If your 1st solution created the “invention” that solved 80% of your problem, the next round creates a new invention that improves the original solution by 10%, yielding a 90% solution. You repeat this process as many times as necessary until you fully solve your problem.
Let’s see how we would apply the 40 question method in a corporation. Here, let’s imagine that we need to adopt this process to some sort of document center. Here we go!
- Segmentation: Would your center work better if you broke it into segments? Perhaps if you separated out graphic work from pure text work, you could have specialty workers with greater expertise. Would two distinct types of workers improve the service? If you perform transcription (speech to text), moving the transcriptionists out of the main editing room would provide a quieter environment, making it easier to listen to voice recordings. (New Problem: Will having two or more service groups increase administrative costs?)
- Taking out: Will removing a part of the center improve it? 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 closer to your clients. By sitting away from the center, they may become more connected to your clients and more objective about complaints. (New Problem: Does the client have space for these positions? Will they compete with the client for space?)
- Local quality: Is the problem and the solution specific to a shift or a location? Your staff works in three shifts, 9am-5pm, 5pm-1am, and 1am-9am. However, the peak “band” of work is from 12:30pm to 8:30pm. 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. (New Problem: How will you provide additional seats on the busiest shift?)
- Asymmetry: If you made some part of your service asymmetric would it improve? Your firm services four types of customers… 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. (New Problem: Will communication between groups become less efficient?)
- Merging: Can you make improvements by bringing together services? Your firm has a main center in your headquarters, and a few workers in branch offices. Staff in branch offices doesn’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. (New Problem: Will you face customer opposition to terminating local staff?)
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 just have a few more steps to develop your genius ideas. We will go through those steps in our next blog. But for now, that’s my Niccolls worth!