How to leverage creative problem-solving to deliver value

Teresa Lawrence, a UB alumna and instructor, shares how leaders can improve their project management and problem-solving skills.

Professionals sitting around a table working on laptops, tablets and notepads.
Teresa Lawrence
Teresa Lawrence, PhD, PMP, CSM

“My mission is to help people become underwhelmed by the perceived enormity of the problem,” says Teresa Lawrence, a University at Buffalo alumna, and president and owner of International Deliverables, a New York State-certified Woman-Owned Business Enterprise.

Lawrence provides training and consultation to organizations seeking to develop a project-oriented mindset and establish a problem-solving culture. Since 2017, more than 75,000 individuals and teams have participated in Lawrence’s workshops, presentations and webinars.

Now, she’s returning to her alma mater as an instructor for the UB School of Management’s newly updated Project Management Certificate program. Students in the program will gain skills in creative problem-solving to provide greater value in project deliverables, increase stakeholder engagement and satisfaction, and be more efficient responding to the challenges that projects bring.

Here, Lawrence shares her advice for leaders on becoming successful problem-solvers and project managers.

On Leadership: One concept you often talk about is having a “project-oriented mindset.” Why is that important to an individual or team’s success?

Teresa Lawrence: A project is defined as a unique deliverable—a product, service or result. It could be an enormous, time-consuming project or a short-term project, but it has a beginning and an end.

Without a project-oriented mindset, we tend to have multiple, often overlapping to-do lists. But when we begin to see our work as projects, it allows us to frame our work and think through the stakeholders, risk, timeline and resources involved in each project. It’s a more comprehensive way to keep us organized, and ultimately, research shows our work will be higher quality and more likely to be delivered on time.

On Leadership: How does creativity play into the success of a project or in fueling innovation?

Teresa Lawrence: When you think about creativity and innovation, it’s really the only time we can answer the question: Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Creativity always comes first. And, where creativity fits into projects is problem-solving.

Typically, when teams hit a wall against something in our work, you may come up with an idea or two to solve it and run with one of those. Instead, let’s develop a process to identify and clearly understand what the problem is, generate and develop ideas to solve it through divergent and convergent thinking, and implement those solutions.

Creative problem-solvers can identify problems they can solve on the spot to avoid going up the chain, and can empower their employees through a proven process to generate solutions and bring projects to completion.

On Leadership: You mentioned using divergent and convergent thinking. Why are these both important to creative problem-solving, and specifically, why is it critical to do them separately?

Teresa Lawrence: Most people have been in a meeting when someone gives an idea and somebody else says, “That will never work.” It just saps the energy from the room, and you potentially lose out on finding a breakthrough idea. Instead, by separating divergent and convergent thinking, we can be more productive.

So, first we diverge and generate numerous, varied ideas—we’re talking hundreds of ideas. Then, we make the conscious choice to converge, transition into editing and narrow down to the best ideas.

On Leadership: Once a team goes through that process, what advice or strategies do you have for leaders to put those ideas into practice and ensure success moving forward?

Teresa Lawrence: In project management, we have our stages of initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and we should be diverging and converging throughout.

In the planning stage, we do a risk assessment to identify all the things that could go right or could go wrong, and we discuss stakeholder engagement, resources, evaluation, procurements. There’s a tool called sequencing—what might be all the things that we need to do, and who’s responsible for them? You map it out.

Then, the sophisticated project manager simply works the plan and asks, “What did we say we were going to do if XYZ happens?” Or, “What’s the problem behind this issue?”—which gets back to creative problem-solving.

On Leadership: Overall, what qualities make someone a successful team leader?

Teresa Lawrence: The best team leaders strive to increase team synergy. They intentionally use tools that increase participation and have a process that creates a level playing field, where nobody is the smartest in the room and everyone is generating ideas that count. They hire for skill and then use the right people based on the problem or project at hand.

A skilled team leader creates an affirmative judgment culture, saying “yes, and,” instead of “yes, but.” And, I think a good team leader gives feedback on ideas in a way that doesn’t crush the originator, and pushes teams to move from talking about problems to actually solving problems.

Teresa Lawrence, PhD, PMP, CSM, is an industry leader in integrating creativity and creative problem-solving into project management. President and owner of International Deliverables, she provides training and consultation to organizations seeking to develop a project-orientated mindset and establish a project management and problem-solving culture, and to individuals seeking PMP certification training.

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