I often quote TED talks in my Blogs, and today is no exception. Steve Johnson gives a great talk about where great ideas come from. Johnson links the explosion of ideas that defines modern culture to the creation of the English coffee house. Today, we’re going to take a look at the coffee house, find out why creative ideas could germinate there, and how we can apply this to our PMOs.
The coffee house arrived in England in 1652, and provided three of the key ingredients of innovation. First, coffee replaced the earlier breakfast drinks of choice in England… beer and hard cider. Instead of the workforce taking a depressant before they headed off to their less than stimulating work, they now started the day off with a stimulant. Now that you’re stimulated you find that the coffee house is a space filled with other stimulated and generally interesting people. Remember, coffee is new, and coffee drinkers tend to be better educated and are often leading edge innovators. Which leads us to the third element, safety. European universities had not yet evolved into safe places for intellectuals to have uninhibited discussions. The Spanish Inquisition was winding down in Europe, but still active. The Salem Witch Trials were just gearing up in America. And Cromwell’s forces had just taken control of England and were busily banning music, dance and political parties. Coffee houses were one of a very few places where you could gather and have an uninhibited conversation.
What happened next, is a chicken and egg story. Coffee houses were filled with inventors, writers, and travelers of all sorts. It was natural that they talked about their adventures, their aspirations and new ideas. Somewhere along the way, money moved into the coffee house. A clever group at one table, might have an expedition funded by a group at another table, and insured by a third group. Later, shares or futures might be sold off for further financing. The coffee house becomes a project factory. A very effective project factory! There was an explosion of innovation over the next couple of hundred years, and almost all of these innovations at least passed through a coffee house at some point in their evolution. That’s not a coincidence. There is something about this type of environment that spurs innovation, and the creation of new projects. So we have a lot to learn from the coffee house.
Today, the project factory is a Project Management Office (PMO) or Process Improvement department. However, the PMO is not always the center of innovation in a firm. There are many different types of PMO’s, with different mandates, budgets and resources. Understanding that we’re all different, there are some steps that we can all take to drive creativity in our organizations. Remember, if you can increase creativity in your organization the “good ideas” that are generated will translate into innovative projects and higher-quality project portfolios. Innovation is incredibly valuable to a PMO, and project manager should drive innovation whenever possible. Here are five simple steps to create your own coffee house environment:
- Meeting Place: It seems almost too obvious to mention, but a key aspect of project team meetings is that it brings together people from around the firm, with all sorts of different backgrounds.
- Safe Environment: As I said earlier, coffee houses arose at a time of turmoil and tension. While I don’t want to draw any direct connections with the Spanish Inquisition, it shouldn’t be surprising to most of you that many new PMO’s were specifically created because corporations are unhappy with profitability, and by extension with the under performing managers and departments. There is certainly tension in these departments, perhaps even fear. Knowing that there is at least one place for team members to speak openly is very important.
- New Tools and Ideas: Just as new ideas were brought to the coffee house by travelers, so too can the PMO seed new ideas throughout the firm. It means that every project manager needs to read and meet with peers so that they are constantly exposed to new ideas. This makes them idea generators when they meet with their teams, which spreads innovation throughout the firm.
- Learn from Experiences: Not all tools will work, or work well in your firm. Many managers simply do not believe that a tool that works for other firms or even for other departments, will work for them. But if you have evidence from other successful projects, you can move ideas and tools closer to acceptance. You can also use a combination of TRIZ questions and Fishbone diagrams to identify the contradiction… the element within the working solution or tool that “won’t work here!”
- Repeat: One of the key observations that Steve Johnson made in his presentation was that no innovation, no flash of insight, no “Eureka” moment really happened in a moment. The story of the apple falling on Newton, leading to the law of gravity is a good story, a way of condensing years of thought and research into a simple tale. But the reality is that every flash of insight is preceded by months or years of careful thought. It is the same today in a major corporation. It takes time for new ideas to be absorbed into the culture. The PMO needs to present good ideas to teams repeatedly. Eventually, team members will bring these ideas (and perhaps a few of their own) and a new perspective back to their groups. That’s how new and innovative projects will find their way back to your project portfolio!
It’s happened before and it will happen again. Bring together people with different background who are trying to get something done… protect them, stimulate them and ideas and projects flow forth. You can be the coffee house of the future, becoming the final steps that turn innovation into profitable projects. And if you have the budget for it… bring the Mocachino’s! And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!