Think outside the box

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Project management today is not quite the same as it used to be in past decades. Project management skills cannot be taught. The best project managers become successful using wisdom which cannot be learned, or bought. They think "outside the box".

A version of this article was published by:
Automation World, September 2004

Remember when new products took 3 years to develop? Well, that was the last century. We have now arrived in the Internet age where Time is critical, and clearly a competitive weapon. Today, with accelerating technology, some products are obsolete within months. Move fast, or become history….

Project management today is not quite the same as it used to be in past decades. Budgets are tight; competition is fierce and time frames demanding. And the penalties for failure are severe.

I recall a fundamental tenet that was preached in the past by a technical guru I respect. His axiom: Projects can be Good, Cheap and Fast – pick any two. In today’s competitive environment, the prizes go to those who can deliver all three, without compromise.

Project management tips

Who are the best project managers? Can project management skills be taught? There are plenty of good management courses, but they teach only the general guidelines: define things up front; build a team, delegate well, communicate clearly, organize and manage information properly, use good work breakdown structures for staffing, scheduling, and supply, don’t use wasted steps. But all those things are just theory – the paradoxes of good project management are absorbed only through practice. The best project managers become successful using wisdom which cannot be learned, or bought.

You’ve probably heard the expression, "Think outside the box". It relates to the puzzle which shows 9 dots which you have to connect using only 4 straight lines, without any disconnect between the lines. Many people assume that they are limited to stay within the box, and end up finding it impossible. But it’s easy – if you go “outside the box.”

Good project managers don’t “assume” any limitations – budgets, people, time, distance. Many supposedly basic requirements can be changed, minimized, or even eliminated. Every practical possibility must be considered, without sacrificing quality and performance.

I recall one consistently successful project manager who used free resources and excess inventory around the plant in ways that no one thought possible. He expanded time through working shifts around the clock. He was tough, but always fair with his people. They enjoyed working for him and competed to be on his team. They were proud to be on budget, on time, every time! To succeed, he simply went beyond normal hierarchical limits and conventional thinking – he operated "outside the box".

Technology makes a difference

The difference today in technology development is technologies itself – providing tools that are ever cheaper, faster and more effective. There are many new options and choices that make yesterday's impossibilities possible. Real-time, networked scheduling software is available for projects that involve close cooperation between remote locations across multiple time-zones. People have the ability to work simultaneously and seamlessly to meet critical schedules without sacrificing quality.

There is no trick to what I am pointing out – just plain, Internet age common sense. Let me relate a real-life example.

Winning market-share in digital cameras

I bet you'll never guess who has the largest market-share in digital cameras today – more than all the competitors put together. No, it's not Kodak, or Sony, or Casio. It is Sanyo, the Japanese product manufacturer.

When Sanyo lost the battle for market share in video cameras to Sony and others, they recognized that they had a lot of talented electronics and imaging people on their hands. Rather than lose them to competitors, they invested heavily in digital camera development, and came up with several significant advances. And then, rather than invest in promoting the relatively unknown Sanyo name, they figured that recognized cameras such as Olympus and Nikon could probably outsell the Sanyo brand. So they made marketing alliances, which quickly got results.

With resolution improvements, expanded memory capabilities and plummeting prices, the market for digital cameras has been outstripping that of conventional film cameras over the past few years. Kodak, the photography leader, was at great risk from a technology twist that arrived in less than a decade.

In ’96, George Fisher, the then relatively new CEO of Kodak, recognized that his company had better come up with a good digital camera fast, or risk losing market share to Casio, Sony and a hundred others. Fisher asked the Kodak development projects group how long it would take to develop a new digital camera. They said 3 years – a reasonable estimate in a conventional sense.

But, recognizing the company’s predicament, Fisher went “out of the box”. He gave the project to a rookie manager – with orders to come up with a new digital camera within 6 months and put it into high-volume production to be available on the shelves by Christmas ’97. Today Kodak is still a player in the burgeoning digital camera business. Without that first high-speed development project, it would be toast.

How was it done? The results came through round-the-clock, Internet-based project management and product development teams at several worldwide Kodak development centers and alliance partners around the globe. While some slept, others were working and handing off results to others in the chain. Modern project management technology and new concepts of marketing alliances provide the answers.

In today’s fast-moving business environment the companies which do not, or cannot, see the possibilities for new growth lose market share to those who can. Happily, there are people who recognize the opportunities. They become the new leaders of tomorrow.

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA