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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Changing Your Perspective

It was hot.  The kids were hungry.  The crowds were huge.  My feet were tired from a full day of walking and standing.  My patience was all but gone.  Is this how I wanted to spend my vacation?

We were standing in front of Hogwart’s Castle at the Universal Orlando Harry Potter experience.  We had been there all day, visited all the Harry Potter shops, and ridden the Harry Potter rides. I’ve never even seen one of the movies, so a lot of this was foreign to me (wife and one of my kids are huge fans). All that was left was to see the light show they display on the castle after dark. After the light show was a long walk through the park, through the parking ramp, and a traffic-filled drive back to the hotel. Can this be over?

As I stood there stewing in my little pity party, I looked over and saw a group standing next to a small child in a wheelchair.  The child was hooked up to oxygen and a number of monitors, all attached to the wheelchair. Everyone was smiling, laughing and holding hands. They were completely entranced by the light show.  Then I noticed their shirts; Make A Wish. My perspective changed.

Perspective can be defined as an attitude toward or way of seeing something. It’s your point of view. Life’s many challenges can give us a negative outlook, especially on those tougher days (let’s be honest, there’s a lot of negativity out there right now!). I’ve had my struggles with this, and when opening up about them, find others have very similar situations.

In project management, we deal with a lot of issues and problems getting thrown at us daily (sometimes hourly). Constant negative input can create struggles and put us in a tough spot mentally. Here are some things I’ve been doing to help change my perspective. Maybe one of them will work for you!

Look At It From Someone Else’s Point of View. Everyone’s perspectives are different. Early in my project management career, I would get anxious about the smallest issues. Looking at issues through someone else’s point of view taught me to take a step back, get input from those smarter than me, resolve and move on. My anxiety was self-induced.

In the instance of the Harry Potter light show, seeing a family having an awesome time changed my perspective. Trying to see it through their eyes, my attitude changed. I found myself looking at my two healthy children and realizing I had nothing to bitch about. After that, my night was awesome.

What’s the Impact? I ask myself, if shit goes really bad, what’s the worst that can happen? My imagination can make it WAY worse than reality. A couple years ago I was talking to a graphic designer about this topic and I mentioned a quote by Jordan Peterson, which she created below. Sums up this point nicely!

Narrow Your Focus on the Top Priority. This is one I’m not sure we can ever master, but have under relative control. Our lives are busy. We have TONS of priorities. Whether work, home, kids, or combo of the three (or more), there’s a lot thrown at us daily. Our projects can have a lot of priorities, too. Therefore, when things arise, which they do often, prioritize! If you try to focus on everything at once, you can feel overwhelmed and stressed. Focusing on the top priority will help change your perspective and go after what’s most important.

As far as the Make a Wish family, I don’t know their situation but pray everything is good with them. Their happiness definitely impacted me and changed my perspective that night, and in future situations. With all the negativity that can easily creep into our heads and projects, it’s easy to realize stress and anxiety. Do your best to change your perspective but looking at situations through others point of view, assessing impacts, and prioritizing what needs to get done.

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How Does Your Team Treat Failure

Like so many parents, I spent the weekend sitting, watching, and cheering for my child’s team. Swimming consists of being in hot pool areas, watching races for sometimes hours, only to see your kiddo swim for a minute or less. It can be long and boring followed by short bursts of energy, but well worth it!

This weekend I spent three full days watching swim meets, starting mid-afternoon Friday and going through Sunday. There were teams of varying sizes from around the region. It was fun to see kids of all ages and abilities compete. It also feels like I was at a rock concert from the ringing in my ears!

This weekend’s swim meets also brought a couple things into focus as it relates to teams and how they deal with failure. Two incidents happened to two teams, with two different reactions. Both happened during relays.

The first was a swimmer jumped into the water and must have turned funny on the dive because he popped up in the wrong lane! I’ve never seen that before, nor had others around me. On his turn at the wall, he was surprised to see another swimmer coming at him. Realizing his mistake, and changed lanes. Needless to say, they were disqualified. The second was a swimmer jumped in during the Individual Medley (all four strokes by four different people) and immediately started doing the wrong stroke! Four strokes in, he realized the mistake and corrected. Stroke violation. Disqualified.

Both of these incidents resulted in DQ’s, no points for their teams, and disappointment. The team’s reaction to the failures, though, were very different. The person who popped up in the wrong lane was yelled at by some of his team members. I mean it was bad enough where an official needed to tell them to stop or there would be team consequences. He felt bad enough already. Rock, meet bottom. He eventually sat on the bench and only got up to swim one more race, then back down again.

The person who did the wrong stroke went back to his bench and put his head down. The entire team huddled around him, put their arms together, and let him know it was OK, no one was mad, and let’s pick ourselves up and move forward. He came back to take 2nd place in an individual event and 3rd in another relay. With the help of his team, he recovered and went on to swim great races.

No one is infallible. We all make mistakes. I don’t know anyone who wakes up in the morning and says “I really hope I f* up bigtime today!!” Instead, we work hard and try our best.

When the inevitable happens, how will your team react to failure? Will there be yelling and blaming? Or, will the team rally together and move forward? This weekend’s events were a good reminder that when a team comes together after a failure, they can still recover and do great things!

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Strategic Priorities: Figuring Out What You’re Doing And What You’re Not

The excitement. The laughter. The ideas. The energy. It was amazing!

Imagine you have a business idea, one for a very niche market where your friends are lining up to subscribe. It’s something you enjoy doing and want to share your passion with others. Sounds great, doesn’t it?!

That’s what two friends were describing over dinner to me and others. Jim and Sandy (not their real names) are HUGE bicyclers. Between their stationary, road, gravel, and mountain bikes, they ride thousands of miles per year and have traveled all over the world on different cycling adventures. They invite people to go with them when they do local rides or use their home gym equipment. Jim and Sandy also have had injuries throughout the years, so Jim became a certified trainer and teaches others exercises and stretches specifically for cycling.

With all this knowledge and equipment (2 Pelotons, 1 Nordic Trak, 6 other stationary bike holders, and an entire garage stall setup as a gym), an idea was beginning to take shape. Why not lease a space and start a gym specifically for the local cycling community?

I’m in! We’re all in! They asked for our help to develop strategies to get them off the ground. Before we knew it, not only was it a gym, but also organizing and leading weeknight rides in the summer, planning cycling trips around the country and even the world, leading an 8 person RAAM team, selling online classes, and being a retailer for their favorite brands. All great ideas, but a lot for two people who also have “day jobs”.

We took each idea and broke it down a few levels so they could see at a high-level the work required. The list was big. Each item was awesome, but the more we talked, the more heads started to spin. After a little bit I only had one question; what is most important and what are you NOT going to do?

Michael Porter has five essential tests of a good business strategy.

The first is a unique value proposition, which Jim and Sandy have focusing on cyclists. The second is a tailored value chain which would lead to greater margins. The next one was critical for the discussion with Jim and Sandy; choosing WHAT NOT TO DO! The conversations got a bit more difficult.

Prioritization and tradeoffs! That was the name of the game from that point on. To focus and be good at something, means you need to not focus on something else. Going back to Jim and Sandy’s list, what started at 12 was narrowed to 6, then to 4, then only the top 3 were prioritized. Those became their strategic priorities, which we helped plan to be completed within the next 12 months.

We all know if we try to prioritize everything as #1, very little gets done because we can’t focus and execute. But, this can be difficult because it means you’re accepting limits. And some of us, (me included) don’t like putting limits up! We think we can do more, but quickly find it’s tough. We can’t make more time, so maximize the time available.

If you think about the company you work for, there are (hopefully) strategic priorities that will be achieved within a certain amount of time. Chances are there were more ideas tossed around than what was approved, but priorities and tradeoffs had to be made. Depending on the company and situation, priorities could have been made based on ROI, the market, efficiencies, compliance, or a whole host of other considerations. The main point is, priorities were made and some things are not going to get done.

As for Jim and Sandy, their 12 month strategic priorities are 1) market research and business plan creation, 2) funding secured for capital expenditures and lease expenses, and 3) property identified, designed, and lease signed/secured. A “sub-strategy” is to build excitement through word-of-month within the cycling community this may be coming. They’ll have a client in me!

Next time the creative ideas are flowing, remember you can’t do them all. Prioritize, figure out what you will do and what you won’t!

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