We’ve successfully used this process to “discover” strategic schedule pull-in opportunities on complex projects. By “strategic” I mean large schedule acceleration opportunities, for example in one recent case… a 6-month pull-in on a 20 month program by using this team engagement approach. The trick is to harness the collective intelligence of a group of people in order to get them to “innovate” on the schedule, in the same way they “innovate” to create technology.
A core best practice principle of fast teams is that they continuously pulled-in their schedules, even before it slips in order to bank time, since they knew they would have “time-withdrawals” in the future, when unknowns pushed the schedule out. They also knew that they had to continually pull-in just to be on time. Or as Andy Grove said, “Only the Paranoid Survive.”
The mindset created is called “pulling the pain forward.” On most late projects the pain threshold is low at the start of the project, when everything looks great and the project end date is a long way away. Once they eventually realize they’re late, it all hits the fan, just when they also have technical problems with the thing they are developing. We call this feel-good approach “head in the sand planning.”
Fast or “paranoid” teams push the pain threshold forward and deal with the problems while there is still time remaining to solve them. This is uncomfortable, which is why most teams don’t do it, but it is one of the core behaviors of fast teams as we have observed and have practiced ourselves with clients. This before-the-fact behavior creates urgency sooner and forces pull-in actions.
Let’s talk about the team acceleration workshop. We start the workshop with three basic concepts; to think macro, ignore constraints or in other words, no “red lighting” ideas, since any idea is considered feasible at this stage of brain storming.
Before the workshop, we conduct a confidential survey of team members, functional managers that support the team, and executive leadership. We ask three simple open-ended questions about their ideas on how to make the project go faster. Basically, we want to know what they consider are the barriers to acceleration, once removed, would make the project go faster. We also gather thoughts about the dominating ideas, assumptions, and boundaries such as, “We must produce the first integration in Silicon,” or “We are limited to x resources and budget,” or “We have to use a certain technology solution and can’t consider alternatives,” and so on.
The survey generates lots of ideas. We find that people always know how to describe the problem and most of the time have the solution, they just need a structured way to articulate and implement the ideas… and they just need someone to ask them. We analyze the responses and eliminate the duplicates and then consolidate them into categories.
We use a simple low-tech process to select the top ideas using colored sticky-dots. Each person gets 7 dots and is asked to put a dot next to the ideas they like the most, which have been printed on large E-Size paper. This generates lots of discussion and joking with some trying to negotiate more dots on their favorite ideas.
Out of this dot-generated short-list, the group prioritizes the top 10-15 ideas. But first, in order to prioritize the ideas… we must first determine the prioritization criteria… it is different for every project. In this example I’ve simplified it; I want ideas that are fast to implement, have the greatest impact to acceleration, and are the easiest to execute. In other words I want to rank low those ideas that are complex and difficult to implement and those that have a low impact on speeding up the project. We are trying to find those ideas that give us the biggest bang for the buck. We rank order the objectives using a pairwise comparison of each objective.
Using our weighted objectives, we score each acceleration idea as to how well it fulfills the objective. We use decisionAccelerator for this group ranking process. It’s fast and effective and engages everyone in the process. There is much discussion generated as people argue for their ideas to get a high ranking. The dialog is as important as the results.
With a prioritized list of ideas, we can focus on “actioning” or executing the ideas. Execution is where most improvement systems fall flat on their face. Deployment is the hard part and as such, this is where these systems fail. We concentrate on the 1-2 top ranking ideas in order to focus the discussion on what it takes to implement each one. This exploration process is essential if they’re to be implemented.
We further focus on what can be “actioned” in 2-3 weeks. Anything beyond this time frame is transferred to a longer term improvement program, usually run by people outside of the project looking a systemic problems across the organization. We identify a single owner for each acceleration idea, since multiple owners only result in it not getting done. We define the team needed and the stakeholders impacted (which could be the same). We discuss the barriers to deployment. This is also called a “potential problem analysis.” We discuss ways to mitigate the barriers or get around them. At this point in the workshop we’ve taken maybe 100 ideas and used the process to narrow the focus to just a critical few — all within a 2-3 hour time frame.
Another technique we use on the short-listed group of ideas is called ”Challenge,” a process developed by Edward de Bono called “Lateral Thinking.” We challenge the assumptions about a problem or barrier to acceleration. The US Military calls this a “Red Team” where a group of “contrarians” are asked to challenge current thinking. Most organizations lack a process for contrary-thinking, since challenging the norm is mistakenly confused with “not being a team player.” This is how bad ideas get institutionalized — just ask the executives of Netflix! In this example, we push each top acceleration idea through the challenge process to further vet the idea and explore deployment issues as a group. The resulting discussion is always rich and interesting.
We also use Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis to study the problems of idea implementation. Lewin was the first to seriously study group dynamics and organizational development at MIT before WWII. Lewin’s thesis was that people tend to focus on the drivers of change, but rather he found when you remove the barriers, one can move an idea forward with less effort. So for each acceleration idea, we will look at the forces driving and restraining it from being implemented. The group identifies the restraining forces and develops actions to remove or mitigate them. The process stimulates creative thinking and opens up new ways of conceptualizing the problem.
The acceleration ideas that make it through this process are deployed on the project. We have achieved major breakthroughs in thinking using this process; one which inspires teams to innovate on their schedule, as they would to advance the technology they’re creating. When the cost-of-delayis in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost profit each day, acceleration is a matter of life and death for our clients.