One Way to Achieve Breakthrough


breakthroughHaving observed for some time the date of my last post sinking mercilessly deeper in the past, today I finally decided to dedicate this sunny Saturday in Colchester and stop the process. I’m back. And what better theme to dedicate to such a return than the subject of breakthrough in innovative projects. If the team is totally stuck due to lack of experience and the time is as precious as usual, what would you as a project manager do to move things forward? Here is what worked for me in such a situation.

The project was a really high-stake one – a showcase for a very important new customer. Had we failed to deliver on time, to budget, and to quality the customer would have been lost forever. And the truth is that we were not at all sure whether we would be able to develop what was required. The project was about a critical middle-ware component that was to be used in the integration of big systems. As these systems were processing financial data, the quality requirements were very high. The problem was that nobody in the development team had the required expertise with this specific technology. Nobody had worked on anything even remotely similar to that in the past.

Brilliant situation for a drama, isn’t it? It is exactly this kind of projects that show how much you are really worth as a project manager. Doing routine projects using the same technology, for similar applications in the same industry, over and over again is one thing, doing a project that is like jumping in the dark is something completely different. Of course, no two projects are alike but you get the idea.

So, we started off full of enthusiasm. We spent the first week reading and learning about the topic and trying to gather information from people who had experience in that specific area. Documentation was not very clear. Especially when we did not know what exactly to look for. I had a very hard time finding somebody who knew something about the subject. I tried all my contacts that might have some clue about it and I checked the contacts they referred me to. I found just a couple of people and the best one of them had done something similar in the past but  it was not exactly the same thing and his experience was not directly applicable. By talking to these people we were building the puzzle bit by bit and we were accumulating knowledge just like bees collect nectar.

Then we started real work. We had a demo for the customer in two weeks and we had to show the basic process of our module running. This proof of concept was supposed to help the customer start believing we could do the project. We had to punch above our weight.

By the end of the first week we had made no progress. Development team was like in a dark tunnel and by no means could all of us judge how far the end of the tunnel was. There was no light, even imaginary one. We discussed detail every day, we tried different ways to make this thing work. No success. We were not even sure what we were looking for, what signs could tell us we were getting close.

The second week was not much different. By Friday developers had tried several approaches, a couple of times they even thought they were seeing the light in the end of the tunnel but it all proved to be illusion. And we started over and over again from scratch. Brainstorming sessions  did not help. All team members were committed to succeed and volunteered to work over second weekend in a row. The demo was planned for Monday. We had to do our best.

On Saturday the team was tired of putting in two weeks without a break. The people worked from home and we chatted over Skype. In the afternoon I felt that everybody was exhausted and the mood was getting grim. Then I changed the approach. I became ‘unprofessional’. Instead of pressing on with further logical analyses and suggestions, I just changed the subject. I started chatting with people about recent sporting events, football and boxing matches. Not that everyone was a sports fan. But this did not matter. I sent them some funny pictures. We exchanged some good jokes and I am sure everyone laughed. I could feel the change in the spirit. In fifteen minutes or so I told them that we had worked enough for a Saturday and called the day off. We might be more lucky the next day.

And guess what happened? Early next morning I got an SMS from the lead developer. She had made it. The module started working.

The rest, as they say, is history. We made a successful demo on Monday and the customer was reassured that the project had good chance to be successful. This was the first and really critical breakthrough in the project. It was not an easy project till the end but now we knew we could do it. We were confident.

Why did apparent distraction of the team work? Why jokes, wasting team time and asking them to take rest helped them find the right approach? Because in a situations where the logical brain does not know the answer you ought to stake on people’s creativity. I believe that this unconventional approach, the luxury to look aside for a moment and even to take a break when under pressure, unlocked the lateral thinking and they found the right way without knowing how to find it or where to look for it. They were very capable developers, they had to just let their professional intuition take the lead.

Whether what I did really helped? Does it really work or is all that just an illusion? Who knows! Human thought is not a strict science, there are no certain formulas. But when there are no other options left this approach is worth trying. You can only win.

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