Can John Cleese’s Advice Help Solve Those Tough Project Issues?

Let me start by saying, if you don’t know who John Cleese is, look him up. Watch a couple of his Monty Python skits. Then c’mon back to this article!

About six months ago I was talking about the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with a couple coworkers. Someone mentioned John Cleese’s book on creativity. Given I’m not what I would define a creative person, didn’t give it a second thought.

However, at a high school swim meet a month ago, I was talking to another parent about a variety of topics between our kid’s events. She’s a super-smart data analyst in a healthcare actuary department. She loves data and the story it can tell.

As we talked, she said her department had been asked for more and more information. Some of the problems the department is trying to help solve have a big impact on the organization. That’s why when she said their VP asked everyone to read the book by John Cleese called “Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide”, I was intrigued. Because the department was full of analytical people who wanted to be “right” versus “close enough”, they never got things done or made decisions. The VP wanted more creative approaches to problem solving, and thought John Cleese could help.

Long story short, this conversation prompted me to buy the book and read it on vacation. The book was short and cheerful as the title says. But, I also found it informative. With the right team and some creativity, those really tough project management issues can be solved. Here are three take-aways I got from the book and how they could relate to project management.

Do Work Before Bed. Ever heard the term “sleep on it?” Basically, if you sleep on it, you delay making a decision or taking action until the next day. Some will call this procrastination. I think, however, if we do some work before bed, our minds put in work overnight.

John Cleese notes if he puts in some work before bed, he often has a little creative idea overnight, which contributes to a solution to the problem he’s trying to solve. For years I’ve kept a notebook on my nightstand for the same reason. If I have a problem and am thinking about it before bed, I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning with an idea. If I don’t write it down immediately, I’ll forget. This doesn’t work for every problem I encounter, but I’d guess about 25% of the time something pops in my head at night! Maybe ask some of your team members to do the same. Who knows what people will dream up (literally)!

Avoid Paralysis. Paralysis comes from the worry of making a mistake.  If you think you’re wrong, stagnation happens because you’re afraid of being wrong.  But, if you’re trying to be creative, there is no such thing as a mistake.  You can’t know you’re going down the wrong path until you’re on it! 

How many times has a project issue come up where someone says, “Well, that might work, but it might not.”? Then there’s more discussion, followed by nothing happening. Instead, that “might work” scenario could in fact be wrong, but it could also open doors to other solutions. It’s a risk to start down the path, but it’s more risky to remain stagnant. Give it a try! As Einstein said, if we know what we’re doing when we’re investigating something, then it’s not research.  

Don’t Get Bogged by Process. When you’re trying to creatively solve a problem, don’t get bogged down in process. Think of your process as what’s done in normal (or at least near normal) circumstances. When it comes to creative problem solving, there’s not a lot of process to fall back on.  New things can be confusing and unfamiliar.  That’s OK.  It’s normal.  Instead, let time be your ally as you think through it.  Eventually, clarity will emerge!

I worked for a company that provided SaaS products. A potential new client liked our products, services, and ongoing support. However, they wanted to make one “small” change that would require a change to the overall architecture. Given this client would jump our revenue 70%, we had to dive in. The enterprise architect said NO WAY, can’t be done! It won’t fit in with our standard processes. So we drew our architecture on the board, and noted places it would change. He then went outside and had a couple smokes, came in, looked at his board, and some ideas came to light. He said it was a crazy idea, but ultimately it worked.

I never imaged I’d say John Cleese and Project Management in the same sentence, but hey, if the shoe fits!! Project issues come up all the time. Some are small and quickly resolved. Others require some creativity. Sometimes, you’ll need to sleep on a problem to see if your mind sorts it out overnight. Avoid analysis paralysis and start taking action. Finally, don’t get bogged down in process. Ultimately, with creativity and the right team, everything can be figure-outable!

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