When I was in elementary school, Bob was in senior high. He lived across the street and he'd "kid sit" me from time to time. Sometimes I'd go to his house and I remember how great it was when he was studying biology. I remember how he all drew all these diagrams when studying amoebas. I thought that was the coolest thing.
Bob explained his drawing: "This is the cell membrane, this is the cytoplasm, this is the nucleus, this is a food vacuole where food is digested, this is a waste product vacuole, these are pseudopods that move around and trap food." Bob's drawing was color-coded with neat arrows pointing to the features. I was fascinated, especially when he told how they sort of oozed around, changing their shapes, expanding and dividing and finding and engulfing whatever it is they ate. I couldn't wait to study these fabulous little creatures. Little did I know they would lead me to a fabulous project management and lifestyle concept!
Most people groan when the idea of project management training is brought up. They groan again (and again) when it's time to start the process with "brainstorming." The classic version of this involves poster-sized papers on the wall, a scribe assigned to write down ideas, or stack of sticky notes for each person and trooping up to the front of the room to stick your stickies on the wall. The point is to generate as many ideas as possible and at this stage in the process; time is NOT taken to be critical of the ideas or to try to organize them. It's all about volume, generating as many ideas as possible-later comes the sorting, the prioritizing, etc.
Invariably there is someone, in the group, often me, who has some ideas that are really "off the wall." One time the scribe said: "I'll write that one on the ceiling..." So much for not being critical! Sometimes when the process is complete and new posters are filled with the common ideas, and the ideas are being prioritized, and the stickies are in arranged in clusters by topic and rearranged on a timeline or some other re-restructuring is accomplished, there they are, those off-the-wall ideas that aren't crossed off the original lists or are isolated on stickies W-A-A-A-A-Y over yonder in the corner.
Me, I celebrate those neglected ideas. Sometimes for their comic relief, sometimes because they represent something someone wanted to get off their mind regardless of the relevance, and sometimes because they are the beginning of some brand new line of thought.
Remember the amoeba? Here's where he (she? it?) comes in. It represents the brainstorming session. Kind of a unit, but kind of oozing and changing shape as people mull over the ideas. Invariably there is a nucleus, the nugget of good stuff that is central to the project. Then there are the digestion and waste vacuoles where ideas are embraced or discarded.
But then, way out on the fringes, outside the main body of the group's work are those way-out ideas. For some reason, they can't be ignored. I like to think they represent the food the amoeba moves toward. Maybe not the main course, like all the other ideas already absorbed, but maybe like a taste off someone else's plate or maybe like just one cookie after dinner. Maybe something that turns out to be so good will be the main dish or dessert choice at some future time.
But the value of these things can be considerable because they can have an impact on the whole rest of the organism or the idea. They can attract some movement, no matter how slow, in the direction of the off-the-wall concept; something new and tasty.
In the real life brainstorming session, the off-the-wall ideas will often inspire other, slightly tamer, more realistic ideas. So when all is said and done, the way-out ones can move the whole project into a slightly different direction. When the critique stage starts, people have said about one of those tamer ideas: "HEY! That might be OK, at least it's not as crazy as Lester's idea..." When I hear that, I rejoice. I have tempted the sluggish amoeba to move in the direction of my vision if only just a little.
On some occasions, at some later time, the oddball stuff comes into its own and gains consensus and has value. So, feed the amoeba and any planning session with the widest variety of ideas possible, you never know what tasty morsel might evolve.
Next week: "Finding Your Soulmate using the Periodic Table of the Elements." Just kidding! No, wait. That just might work
Gary Lester, M.S., is the Executive Director of Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that helps people solve problems and be happier through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Learn more about this important work at www.fswc.org.