Think Outside the Box

Remember when new products took three years to develop?

The best project managers become successful using wisdom that cannot be learned, or bought.
The best project managers become successful using wisdom that cannot be learned, or bought.

Well, that was the last century. We have now arrived in the Internet age, in which 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.

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; and 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 that cannot be learned, or bought.

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Think outside the box.” It relates to the puzzle that shows nine dots that you must connect using only four 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,” as shown in the illustration here.

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 difference

The difference today in technology development is technology 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.

In 1996, 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. Fisher asked the Kodak development projects group how long it would take to develop a new digital camera. They said three 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 six months and put it into high-volume production to be available on the shelves by Christmas 1997.

The project manager accomplished the task. How? By using 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.

In today’s fast-moving business environment, the companies that 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 leaders of tomorrow.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. You can e-mail him at: jim@jimpinto.com. Or review his prognostications and predictions on his

Web site: < href="http://www.jimpinto.com">www.jimpinto.com

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