Whole-Brain Thinking (And Action) for Project Leaders

By Karen A. Brown and Nancy Lea Hyer

Individuals new to roles as project leaders often discover they cannot rely solely on the left-brain, analytical skills that served them in more routine, functional positions. Project roles require a leader to complement well-honed left-brain skills with a more visionary right-brain orientation. A few tools can help a new (or newly enlightened) project leader with the transformation. They offer structures and processes for involving your team, clarifying goals and roles, preparing for uncertainties, and managing decisions about what needs to happen and when. They allow a leader and team to envision the project in a holistic way while also keeping an eye on details. Three we find especially useful include:

• Mind Mapping for WBS Development
• Gut-Feel Method for Anticipating Project Uncertainties
• Sticky Note Method for Project Scheduling

All three of these involve gathering your team around a large (about 1 meter by 2 meters) sheet of wall-mounted paper. We describe them (and others) in our book, Managing Projects: A Team-Based Approach, but here’s a bit of information to whet your appetite:

Mind Mapping for WBS Development: The WBS or work breakdown structure is a hierarchical representation of the actions required to accomplish project goals. It is the foundation for the entire project plan, and certainly not something one person can complete by working on a computer screen in a dark cubical. It requires vision, imagination, ideas building on ideas, and multiple perspectives. An image of a team developing a WBS mind map is shown below. For more information, see Managing Projects: A Team-Based Approach, Chapter 5 or Brown and Hyer, Whole-Brain Thinking for Project Management, Business Horizons, 2002, May/June, 47-57.

WBS Mind Mappers

Gut-Feel Method for Anticipating Project Uncertainties: Anyone reading this post has undoubtedly been caught by surprise when unexpected project events have reared their heads. Bad weather, a late delivery, technology that doesn’t work as expected, negative customer reactions to new ideas… and so on. You can take advantage of the collective brain-power of your team to anticipate and prepare for potential surprises, turning “unknowns” into “knowns” by applying the Gut-Feel method (LaBrosse, 2006). We feature a detailed description of this method in Chapter 6 of Managing Projects: A Team-Based Approach. The image below shows a team whose members have brainstormed project uncertainties on individual sticky notes. They have organized them into deliverable categories and are now “dot voting” about likelihood and potential to affect the project.

Gut-Feel Method

Sticky-Note Method for Project Scheduling: Stop! Don’t create your schedule using Microsoft Project! Instead, begin with your WBS mind map and further engage your team in discussions about sequencing. From our experience, the best approach involves writing the names of all lowest-level tasks on sticky notes and arranging them on a large piece of wall-mounted paper (about 1 meter by 2 meters). Next, take a big-picture perspective and place them into early-middle-late categories. Next, team members dive into the process of more detailed sequencing. Complete instructions are available in Chapter 7 of Managing Projects: A Team-Based Approach, but we offer several tips about scheduling in two other postings on this web site (see “The Early-Middle-Late Method for Project Scheduling” and “Top Ten Scheduling Mistakes”). Try it! You will be amazed at the important discussions that come to the surface. The image below shows a team in action.

Scheduling With Sticky Notes