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Answer the Call for Innovation

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A decade of planning came down to seven tense minutes aimed at answering the age-old question: Is there life on Mars?

With that intriguing set up, John Grotzinger, PhD, pulled in a captive audience at PMI® Global Congress 2013 -- North America as he outlined the 2012 project that sent a car-sized robot, called Curiosity, to Mars. 

First, the team had to figure out how to land a spacecraft safely on the red planet. Mars doesn't have enough atmosphere to slow a craft for landing. So the project team devised what it dubbed Sky Crane. After a parachute slowed the spacecraft considerably, rockets prevented it from crashing, and then Sky Crane lowered Curiosity by a rope. It was an innovative "out-of-the-box idea," but U.S. government sponsors agreed to give it the go-ahead.

Not all projects are quite so high profile, of course, but Dr. Grotzinger offered lessons learned for practitioners of projects large and small:

  1. Bold questions lead to grand challenges. Create a grand vision that will both inspire innovation and motivate the team to the finish line. For Dr. Grotzinger's team, it was the quest for extraterrestrial life forms that led to Sky Crane.
  2. Fly as you test, test as you fly. The team didn't fly anything it hadn't tested.
  3. If at first you fail, don't try again. Instead, uncover the root cause of failure and fix it. The "darkest day of the mission," he said, occurred when the US$2.5 billion project was delayed by two years so the team could fine-tune the first-of-its-kind landing technology.
  4. Early returns keep sponsors happy. Not far into Curiosity's exploration, it found evidence that water flowed across Mars almost 4 billion years ago -- an early indication of the project's breakthroughs to come.

Dr. Grotzinger closed with a case for innovative thinking and perseverance: "Great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset," he said. The first time his team presented Sky Crane to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), they said it was crazy -- but after tweaking the idea, they eventually accepted the pitch.

The final congress keynote speaker, author and consultant Gina Schreck, covered a different type of uncharted territory, at least for some: social media. She broke people into two groups: digital natives, who feel at ease with the technology, and digital immigrants, who don't. But with Twitter, Facebook and other social tools officially an ingrained part of the business world, immigrants need to become natives fast. 

Ms. Schreck offered several tips to stand out on the social scene:

  1. Keep relevant. Track all the latest tools in the digital world and follow best practices. Twitter, for example, can be frivolous or vital: "Who you are connected with determines whether it's useful." She suggested finding good project management content through #PMI.
  2. Stay thirsty for learning. Try learning about social from digital natives as you share your own experiences and knowledge.
  3. Build your network -- before you need it. Don't wait until you're job hunting to put relevant content on your LinkedIn profile, delete outdated skills and endorse people.
Ms. Schreck urged digital immigrants to embrace social media and innovation for survival. "If you don't make today's you obsolete, someone else will," she said.

What are your tips for fostering innovation? Share with us in the Comments box below.

Couldn't make it to New Orleans? Read more from congress.

The Customer Mindset Is Always Right

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In most cases, project managers are assigned to projects after the development of strategic initiatives and project charters. Seemingly, we have little to do with strategic planning and more to do with operational implementation. Although I agree that the latter is an important element of our profession, it is also a reactive one. Our value proposition is not fully used in the strategic planning needs of the organization. 

I increasingly expect project management to go beyond being a reactive role and become proactive. And one method of doing so is becoming customer-service-oriented. Now, I am not referring to the traditional definition of "customer," but rather defining the organization itself as the project manager's single true customer.

Thus, becoming customer-service-oriented enables project managers to evolve into business leaders by:

  1. Reinforcing the new value proposition based on broad business acumen
  2. Expanding services with the goal of developing key approaches
  3. Aligning the customer to identify true organizational needs
The diagram below illustrates the concept of increasing the customer approach to project management. The project manager gains experiences and increased value by being customer-service-oriented. The repetitive experiences add up to knowledge that project managers need to, over time, drive customers to better outcomes and experiences.

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The focus on customer service ensures project managers are aligned with the interests of a project and an organization's purpose. 

According to the research of Dr. Jay Kandampully and Dr. David Solnet, a "service vision" improves an organization's overall performance. They illustrate two case studies, Dell and Southwest Airlines, of companies that used service orientation to create a competitive differentiator in their industries. 

Project managers can do the same for the profession. Once they harness a customer-serviced-oriented mindset, they can put it into practice to proactively interpret organizations strategy, align leadership and rationalize organizations' critical projects. 

The first steps toward redefining the profession as proactive instead of reactive are to offer services with this approach in mind, such as:

  • Advisory: Become empowered by understanding the business and its needs to advise customers in aligning projects to meet objectives.
  • Facilitation: Engage senior executives in highly productive conversations.
  • Effective presentation: Establish qualitative and quantitative methods to deliver highly defined business cases.
In my own experiences in leading the business transformations of multiple organizations, I have noted they tend to begin with an initial reactive approach of a cost reduction effort. They then mature to designing a service culture to offer global end-to-end processes, with service-level agreements that ultimately enable it to achieve its strategic growth plans.

What other approaches do project managers need to redefine their role from being reactive to proactive?

Manage The Knowledge Gaps

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To be great in project management, we can't only be familiar with our role as the project manager. We must be educated about other roles in the profession, as well as most, if not all, knowledge areas.

But project managers often do the work they like and are familiar with, rather than work that needs to be done. Even if it's work that contributes to a project's overall success, I find that many of us focus on tasks that we're familiar with or that we already know we're good at.

Regardless of how great I am with some tasks, I know that I must fill in my own knowledge gaps with team members' expertise. Because in addition to being a good project manager, the real trick to getting things done is surrounding myself with a capable, well-trained project team.

Instead of trying to learn everything and being everything to everyone, I accept that I won't always know it all. I ask for input from the team on a regular basis. This makes the team feel needed and appreciated for their contributions and makes the project execution more efficient.

Do you tackle the tasks you're good at rather than those that need to get done? How do you balance your own expertise with that of your team members?

There's an App for That

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For most of human history, skills have been passed from master to apprentice on an "as needed" basis. As the apprentice encountered a problem, the master would demonstrate the solution and the apprentice learned.

Early academic institutions operated along similar lines. It's only in the last century that learning has moved to a "book-and-exam" model. But many researchers have questioned the effectiveness of this method of learning for skills that involve contextual variability. Instead, they advocate developing communities of practice, mentoring and other options to replicate the master and apprentice approach.

The problem with these approaches is timing: Can the master be available when needed by the apprentice? Most of the time, it seems the answer is no!

Project management involves a very high level of contextual variability, particularly in the area of interpersonal relationships, motivation and leadership -- the so-called soft skills. Learning these skills in the "school of hard knocks" is not fun and has significant costs for the inexperienced project manager and organizations that rely on them.

Advances in modern technology may offer a solution. Intelligent agents can already deliver context-sensitive information based on what an application has learned about you.

Looking forward a year or two, it's not difficult to envisage applications on your iPad or smartphone that can understand the knowledge you're likely to need for each task or meeting. It could make the one or two relevant items in the organization's knowledge management system available to you as needed -- plus, of course, the relevant project information. If the context is not clear, advanced links could even find a "knowledge master" who's immediately available for additional advice.
 
The smart systems then learn from your interaction and update the corporate knowledge banks. Add the ability for you and your colleagues to then input lessons learned and you have the basis for a true learning organization.

Many of the elements are already in place. The question is, are we, as a profession ready to make effective use of the potential? 

Project Management in Action at the Shanghai World Expo

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There's big -- and then there's mind-blowingly big! Everything about the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China defies easy definition. Covering a total area of 5.28 square kilometers (2.04 square miles), the site is divided into five zones spread along both sides of the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai. The CNY18 billion extravaganza includes gardens, wetlands, paved walkways and hundreds of buildings.

The expo is not only a triumph for project managers from the Shanghai region and the Chinese construction industry, but also from all of the nations that built and fitted out their pavilions. The design, construction and management of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo projects went beyond the traditional iron triangle of "time, cost and quality" to include sustainability and safety.

The projects represented a true integration of Western and Eastern cultures, demonstrating project management as a truly global profession crossing all sectors. There are more than 200 countries and international organizations represented, ranging from Tuvalu to the United States; the World Bank to the International Council of Museums, as well as numerous corporations and Chinese provinces.

In one long day, I only managed to see a small section of the total experience, but could start to appreciate the overarching purpose of this great festival.

The remarkable British Pavilion's "dandelion" is made up of 60,686 acrylic rods, each 7.5 meters (25 feet) long, to allow light into the inside of a 20-meter (66-foot) cube. Embedded in the end of each rod are one to 10 seeds representing Chinese plant species growing in the United Kingdom. Project managed by Mace Construction Group, the remarkable "seed cathedral," is already winning awards.

In the two months since opening, the Expo has hosted more than 25 million visitors. And organizers expect 70 million will get a glimpse of the urban vision before the Expo closes in October.

My visit was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see project management on such on a grand and global scale. If you can't make the trip personally, you can be a virtual tourist online at http://en.expo.cn/. It's well-worth the visit.

Tools to Generate Ideas

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In the book Thinkertoys, author Michael Michalko says: "To get original ideas, you need to be able to look at the same information everyone else does and organize it into a new and different pattern. This is active thinking."

What can a project manager do when he or she needs to generate new problem-solving--or any really--ideas? Try SCAMPER, which Mr. Michalko calls "a checklist of idea-spurring questions":

•    Substitute some part, activity, or operation.
•    Combine the product/process/service with something else.
•    Adapt something to it.
•    Modify or Magnify it.
•    Put in to some other use.
•    Eliminate something.
•    Reverse or Rearrange it.

Consider a meeting I had with customers who posed the challenge: "How can we improve the existing document release process?" First, we went through and identified all of the sub-processes (request change, review request, create/modify document, verify/validate document, upload document to asset library and publish document.)

Using the "create/modify document" sub-process as an example, let's use SCAMPER to ask the following:

•    What activities can we substitute within the existing sub-process?
•    How can we combine "create/modify document" with some other sub-process to improve efficiency and accuracy?
•    What can we adapt or reuse from another "create/modify document" sub-process used by other business units?
•    How can we modify the way "create/modify document" sub-process is conducted?
•    What can we magnify or add to the "create/modify document" sub-process?
•    How can we put "create/modify document" process to other uses?
•    What can we eliminate from the way we "create/modify document?"
•    What is the reverse of "create/modify document" sub-process?

With more ideas generated, a project manager has more options to explore. That is why I am always looking for tools. How do you generate your ideas?

Come Out of Hibernation ...

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Even in these tough economic times, it's important to remember that organizations can still improve. Not everything has to be about cutbacks and budgets. (I mean, some things do, but not everything.)
    I came across this great whitepaper by @task called Driving High-Performance Projects Despite Shrinking Budgets: Three Keys to Increasing Productivity and Reducing Costs Across the Enterprise. It seems to sum things up pretty well:
    "There are many corporations getting ready for hibernation. They've already resigned themselves to crawl into a cave and wait things out. Organizations may need to reevaluate the way they do business in today's market, but there's no need to hide and let potential profits evaporate like the snow in spring. ... Project managers challenged by shrinking budgets can still drive high-performance projects."
    The whitepaper gives three keys for increasing productivity and reducing costs across the organization:

1. Make sure your organization has access to accurate information.
2. Focus on bottom-line activities.
3. Make the organization's vision accessible to everyone.
   
What do you think? Is your organization hibernating or rising to the challenge?

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