Lateral thinking for project leaders; Ways of ‘searching widely’

January 23, 2007

Project leaders are well aware of the need for searching widely for new ideas. Lateral Thinking methods have been successfully applied in a range of business contexts. Two experienced business educators summarise their approach for working with MBA project teams.

We have been applying Lateral Thinking methods with cohorts of MBA students for several decades. Our work has drawn heavily on the original concepts of Edward de Bono who popularized the term Lateral Thinking.

Here is a powerpoint presentation about lateral thinking. We prepared it to help teams in ‘searching widely’ in projects.

Lateral Thinking for Project Work

We have been working for several years with Dr de Bono, and also with his colleagues at the institute for the development of thinking, at The University of Malta.

Our focus has been to adapt the ideas of our collaborators to meet the specific requirements of teams of graduate business students. These experiences confirm the benefits of the approach, and findings have been published in various papers and books on creativity for for business professionals.

For a recent introduction to creativity in business see the (admittedly lengthy) monograph from The Innovation Research group at Brighton University Business School. The report will go more deeply into the brief summary we offer here.

Mapping the Project

Before looking for new ideas we recommend a project team to carry out a Mapping in order to develop a shared understanding of key issues in any project activity. The Mind Map will be the starting point for discussing ‘what’s the best way to describe the brief as a challenge or problem’. Keep the mind map in your shared project space (real or electronic)

Lateral thinking for New Perspectives and Ideas.

We have identified three Lateral Thinking techniques which help in the production of new ideas. The three techniques (Reversals, Wouldn’t it be Wonderful If, and Jolts) are summarized in a powerpoint by ourselves on using Lateral Thinking in project work.

Once you understand how to apply the techniques you can take the map you made, and list perspectives or starting points for the project We recommend using the convention beginning ‘ How To …’. You may only need one or two breakthrough perspectives, but search widely in order to obtain those valuable How Tos. You will need many more How Tos before you can be sure that you have done a good job at this ‘search widely’ stage.

A breakthough perspective is a focus for more ‘wide searching’, and more lateral thining. Again, ‘Reversals’, ‘Wouldn’t it be Wonderful if’ and Jolts help in arriving at valuable and unexpected ideas.

Finally, in project work, the strongest ideas are coupled with actions. Can you work on the ideas so that the follow-up actions are visualised in your statement of each idea?


This is a brief introduction to the application of Lateral Thinking techniques within project work. Some people find it comes easily, others have to practice. Our experience is that anyone can become skilled at such thinking. Teams can help those members who are less comfortable with Lateral Thinking by providing a supportive and relaxed environment. Treat meetings as ways to progress the project, but also as ways to develop skills at generating valuable ideas within any project experience.

BA Turbulence: Sick workers … sick leadership?

January 22, 2007

British Airways is facing a potentially damaging Union dispute, with strike action threatened over the coming weeks. The dispute contrasts the newer participative leadership and classical industrial relations battles. Increasingly, sick workers are being associated with sick leadership stories, as Walmart is also discovering.

The context is a familiar one. BA operates in one of the most competitive global market sectors. The business pressures for the traditional carriers have been accentuated by the success of cut-price rivals, increased political interest in the ‘carbon footprint’ of air travel, operating costs, and costs of financing pension arrangements.

Over some unpleasantly bumpy progress in recent years, the company has been addressing these problems. There have been shifts in leadership, but the one-time tag The world’s most popular airline now seems to have distinctly ironic echoes.

Indicators of the company’s concerns have been recent negotiations to come to terms with its pension commitments, and efforts to address productivity losses resulting from what the company attributes to excessive levels of absenteeism.

The sickness sickness

In recent years, absenteeism has been studied both from economic and behavioural standpoints. The former approach draws on traditional industrial relations measures of ‘sickies’, and is inclined to focus on days off per year per employee. The vocabulary is that of malingerers, and of a sickness culture. The behavioural standpoint draws on the more modern human resource approach.

For many workers (and not a few academic researchers), this is regarded as a relabelling rather than a revolution in the culture of the workplace. What should be noted in this case is that BA has been a leading advocate of workplace participation, and motivational methods for many years. It has invested heavily in its management and leadership training .

Yet, the current debate still has echoes of an older confrontational ‘us versus them’ culture.

Sick workers, sick buildings … sick leadership?

There has been various non-economic explanations of what was simply lumped under managerial terms of malingering and absenteeism. Ideas of psychologically damaging environments (sick buildings syndrome) have been studied. ‘Sick buildings’ may have clear and identifiable dimensions. but may also be more as symptom of wider issues. Sick buildings may be an indicator of sick jobs.

This at some level will connect with organizational leadership. In time, the matter will become a threat to effective operation.

The PR difficulties of Walmark at present might be cited in this respect. Its leadership decisions are monitored closely and discussed through various pressure groups via the internet.

This week, for example, the company introduced some leadership changes. One headline was ‘Walmart promotes executive who warned of sick workers’.

BA and Walmart alike increasingly have to consider the dynamics not just of sick workers, but what in their actions can be accused of being sick leadership.

John Reid’s leadership faces the honeymoon test

January 21, 2007

The Home Office could be split into two departments under recommendations being put forward by Home Secretary John Reid. This will be the biggest challenge to his honeymoon period as Home Secretary. Is he getting the balance right beween ‘quick wins’ and sound transformational policies?

Plans announced this week suggest that John Reid will seek to split the Home Office. One new department will deal with security issues and the other with justice. The plans are to be put before the Cabinet for discussion.


John Reid has displayed an energetic and pugnacious leadership stance in his brief time as Home Secretary. He took over in May 2006, after his predecessor Charles Clarke had departed following a story of foreign criminals being released from prison without being considered for deportation. Subsequently, serous errors on police computers have been revealed and inmates including terror suspects have ‘disappeared’ from custody, (precise numbers not known to the Prison Service).

Initially, he took the line that such weaknesses were inherited. In a memorable phrase, the Home Office was ‘not fit for purpose’. Since then, he has initiated extensive internal investigations. The ‘fitness for purpose’ of forty four most senior figures have been assessed, and two new chief executives have been brought in.

Quick wins?

In business mythology, leaders brought into a crisis go for quick visible results. Shortly after John Reid’s appointment, Nick Cohen blogged that

‘Reid told the senior civil servants that he wanted “quick wins” – his version of Tony Blair’s “eye-catching initiatives”. Quick wins followed by the truckload .. One senior civil servant told me that a part of the explanation for the shambles in his department was the “absolutely unrelenting pressure” for “top-grade people to spend a vast amount of their time pushing out initiatives”.

The BBC noted that ‘In a recent commons statement he addressed the most recent Home Office embarrassment over failure to maintain accurate records of people in the United Kingdom who had commited criminal offences abroad. He found it increasingly difficult to maintain the line that he was not responsible for such continued procedural weaknesses falling within the responsibilities of The Home Office’.

The merits of a quick-win strategy for leaders

There is an intuitive feeling that a new leader should go a quick win. First impressions are important. Particularly if a leader arrives to ‘sort out’ a crisis, the psychology of the quick win is appealing. The leader addresses anxieties, and shows that he or she is decisive. Ritala Houston illustrates the quick win in the context of IT projects (quite relevant in some respects to the current issue).

But the mythology is worth challenging. On one hand, decisiveness may sit uneasily with the claim that there are complex issues to be understood, so that a newcomer may be reacting before being aware of important aspects of the situation.

The Leadership Dilemma

There is a leadership dilemma here. How can a leader take advantage of the leadership honeymoon without starting new schemes based on inadequate knowledge and preparation? Answers please to this blog, or Dr John Reid.

Working to a difficult project brief

January 20, 2007

Project leaders from time to find find themselves working to a difficult or even impossible-seeming brief. Two approaches offer escape from the difficulty. Each involves finding ‘wriggle room’. The first involves a creative reformulation of the project drawing on the marketing maxim ‘what business are we in?’ The second involves renegotiating the project brief.

A project can be seen as a little business, with its business objectives, strategy, constraints and so on. The project brief represents the description of the strategy that the company is following

What business are we in?’

In organisational theory, the question ‘ what business are we in ’ was popularized many years ago in a famous article by Theodore Leavitt.

The railroads collapsed because they thought they were in the railroad business, when really they would have been thinking about themselves as being in the transportation business.

If we translate this into project terms, you could say that the corporate brief was being seen as ‘how to run a railroad business’. Leavitt argued that the project brief should have been challenged and redefined as ‘how to run a transportation business’.

There will always be wriggle room

Continuing to relate this to project leadership, the practical question becomes ‘How can we redefine our brief?’. Here, the general principle is that projects always define complete definition. This means that there will always be’ wriggle room’ or scope for redefining the project. This is where understanding of creative problem-solving, and negotiation come into play.

A good test of clarity of project definition is through asking the simple question: ‘what are we really trying to do?’. A further question is ‘what seems to be the key block or obstacle to achieving our goal ?.

Everything is negotiable (to some degree)..

The context within projects is the need to move from a project as it was initially proposed, to one which offers something acceptable to the client, even it is not what was originally requested.

The fundamental principle is to find a ‘win-win’. This rarely happens unless the project team has built up trust with the client. (Trust-building deserves a posting of its own).

However, professional negotiators argue that everything is negotiable.

George Kohlrieser, a leadership professor and hostage negotiator uses his negotiation system to show how leaders can overcome conflict, influence others and raise performance.

To go more deeply

Goal orientation for redefining your project brief is supported by creative leadership. It can be supported by various techniques or technique systems. For example, A rather formal problem-solving approach (TOTE), is useful for inexperienced teams when there is a preference for analytical methods.

Another description of Goal orientation can be found in described in . Do not be put off by the simple example. The article outlines a powerful analytical approach which (like TOTE) is valuable for inexperienced project teams.

This now-aging text Creativity and Problem Solving at Work may still be available in your regional Business School library. It contains one of the early accounts of problem definition through goal orientation.

A newer text is Tony Proctor’s Creative Problem-Solving, which has a business school emphasis, updating Creativity and Problem Solving at Work.

The negotiation system recommended by George Kohhreiser is particularly relevant to project leaders facing difficult project briefs.

Tips for leading difficult projects

Readers of this Blog are invited to contribute tips for leaders facing difficult project briefs? Messages of success (or traps to avoid) are welcomed, as well as unanswered questions.

Look out Marks, here comes Tesco

January 20, 2007

Earlier this week, Mark and Spencer announced its spectacular greening policy which propelled it into the lead position among top British retailers. Now Tesco announces its plans for becoming a greener and cleaner organisation. While the Marks’ Plan A may just shade it in coherence and specified targets, we are clearly witnessing a battle for corporate credibility on environmental policy. This may well produce a rising tide effect in such efforts in retailing which will impact throughout the distribution chain.

M&S chief Stuart Rose announced the company’s Plan A (‘there is no Plan B’) earlier this week. He would have been fully aware that he had done no more than steal a few days start over industry leader Tesco.

Today, Sir Terry Leahy CEO of Tesco responded. Leahy presents a more measured leadership style than the effervescent Rose, but he is developing into a formidable communicator for his organisation. He also has a tougher message to convey in shaping the public perception of Tesco’s stance as an environmental leader.

The communications battle: M&S 1 Tesco 0

In exploring behind the leaders’ pronouncements this week, I turned to the respective corporate web-sites. This is a simple if crude measure (but both companies are fully aware of the importance of first impressions). M&S had a clear lead in this particular battle. News of its new environmental policy had been clearly and highly visibly posted. In some contrast, the Tesco site has not been updated. The ‘latest press releases’ today had not been updated from the year end. The corporate responsibility pages were equally unforthcoming on Tesco’s new plans. If Marks appeared to have a launched a campaign after careful preparation, Tesco by contrast seems less ‘joined up’.

On this measure it’s M&S 1 Tesco 0

The likely environmental impact of the plans M&S 1 Tesco 1

Going beyond the economic: The impact of political leadership

What are the forces supporting these initiatives? The traditional economic rationale would look to explanations that gauge shifts in public opinion and attempt a cost-benefit analysis. Such analyses remain important as corporate leaders will continue to communicate with institutional stakeholders for whom the decision to support a company will depend on evaluation of its short-term profitability. Governments take a slightly longer time-scale around re-election consideration

But in an indirect way, the general public, influenced through pressure groups, can influence government, and government can influence corporate responsibility through various direct (legislative) and indirect (exhortative) measures.

For example, just over a month ago a Green Business Summit was hosted by the Government.

Executives from some of Britain’s biggest firms, with a combined total of 250 million customers, met at 10 Downing Street yesterday [11th Decemebr 2006] to work out a combined plan for a new range of “green” products, to be launched in the new year.

Companies such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer, HSBC, BSkyB, B&Q, O2 and The Carphone Warehouse have committed themselves to “accelerating the roll-out of practical, simple solutions” to help consumers reduce carbon emissions.

It would not be unreasonable to assume that such a meeting would accelerate the plans of participating organisations. In such ways, according to experts in transformational leadership, are self-seeking behaviours tempered with wider social considerations.

Role models and cultural angst in Little Britain

January 19, 2007

A furore involving race and class issues has developed this week, over the TV programme Celebrity Big Brother. The episode illustrates how so-called Reality Television can become a significant indicator of cultural anxieties and social identity. It also suggests how celebrity leadership enjoys a honeymoon period which tends to be followed by disenchantment.

Celebrity Big Brother, the TV reality show, has this week resulted in angry reactions when the observed words and actions of some participants were considered to be bullying and racist. The hostility within the show has been directed towards the only non-English participant, an Indian film actress, Shilpa Shetty.

Protests have multiplied into the tens of thousands and spread beyond the viewers of the show. There has been intense interest in India. A major sponsor has withdrawn its support, popular newspapers have also fanned the controversy, and politicians have felt compelled to join the debate. Gordon Brown, like many a politician, has had to deal with the matter in various interviews, rather than sticking to a preferred agenda. He has had the added pressure of being on a visit to India, where the story inevitably was of great interest.

One of the protagonists on the show was Jade Goody, who had won national attention, and accompanying lucrative marketing opportunities, after appearing on an earlier Big Brother show. She achieved her celebrity status through the voting system. Votes of the viewers offer not just a sense of establishing the people’s choice, but provide revenue, is an element of the business model of these programmes). In this way, we the public create the celebrities we most want. The celebrities we deserve, arguably.

But celebrities, as products of social fantasies, having won a public beauty contest, also face the prospect of losing their appeal to the public. The Honeymoon can be brief.

Voting as a measure of cultural beliefs

In a few hours, the viewers will have at opportunity to vote again. This time the voting will determine whether Shilpa Shetty, or Jade Goody will be ‘evicted’ from the Big Brother version of reality. The vote is being treated as having some symbolic significance and an indicator of a Nation’s cultural attitudes towards bullying and racism. National newspapers, having built up Jade, are now urging that she be voted out of the show.

Channel 4 which broadcasts Celebrity Big Brother is engaging in brand damage limitation, which enjoying staggering gains in viewing figures. It announced today that profits from the phone-in vote would go to charity.

How blows the wind?

Various signals suggest that the Big Brother organizers are anticipating that Jade Goody will be removed by the popular vote from the Show tonight. They have decided to avoid any possible unpleasantness of a public demonstation by changing the customary humiliation accompanying the announcement of the vote. Another indicator: the bookmakers William Hill have Goody as a 33 to 1 odds-on favorite for Goody’s eviction.

I could not point to direct evidence. There are various inponderables: Will the Sun’s campaign really swing votes, or even mobilize a proportion of them? Will the withdrawal of support to the show of Carphone Warehouse, the Perfume Shop of selling Jade’s perfume, the disapproval of politicans such as Gordon Brown, and human rights leader Trevor Phillips simply encourage the rebellious tendency among a proportion of viewers?

The Leadership Honeymoon

The process is well-known to politicians. Gordon Brown is not considered a leader of charismatic appeal. However, if he wins not just in the ballet to succeed Tony Blair, but in a subsequent general election, he will be guaranteed the honeymoon period as the voters’ leader of choice. Equally certainly, he will face the prospect that honeymoons create only a temporary state of enchantment, as we create our fantasy leader, and eventually react in disillusion against the image we created.

VW Leadership travails: A Shakespearean drama

January 17, 2007

125px-shakespeare2.jpgThe Volkswagen organisation has faced downsizing challenges in common with the majority of auto-manufacturers in recent years. As these changes unfolded, the company became embroiled in leadership battles familiar to students of the dramas of William Shakespeare. The German business governance system also has to be studied to understand some of the key contextual factors involved.

Update January 27th 2007

The original filing was updated with the news that Peter Hartz, the official at the centre of the bribery scandal has been given a two year-suspended prison sentence.

Peter Hartz goes to court today to face charges of illegal payments to Union officials. Hartz was formerly head of personnel at the VW corporation. He had also been an influential figure in labour policy changes introduced by the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. The story was a high profile one in Germany when he resigned from Volkswagen in July 2005, accompanied by lurid accounts of sexual shinnanigans.

The case has taken two years to reach court. Since then, the
corporation has encountered a range of further leadership problems.

A few months ago, Volkswagen chief executive Bernd Pischetsrieder stepped down under unclear circumstances.

Then an announcement was made that Wolfgang Bernhard is to leave his post as chairman of the Volkswagen brand group by the end of January 2007.

The Context

The New York Times analyses the situation as a leadership battle:

The former chief executive, Bernd Pischetsrieder, brought Mr. Bernhard, a former executive at DaimlerChrysler, into Volkswagen in October 2004 as part of his plan to cut costs at the automaker. Mr. Bernhard pushed through plans to cut 20,000 jobs and extend the workweek during the course of 2006. But in the process, he alienated the powerful Volkswagen union, IG Metall, which is also closely allied with Volkswagen’s chairman, Ferdinand Piëch. When Mr. Piëch, together with Porsche, a major Volkswagen shareholder, pushed out Mr. Pischetsrieder in favor of Mr. Winterkorn in November, Mr. Bernhard was left vulnerable to the same fate.

Leadership battles

The organizational leadership literature has gone some way from the original trait models, in which the great leader was presented as having special qualities through which he (almost always he) achieved great transformational change. Among other weaknesses, these models considered that the leader was the causative force for change.

Later models considered that there were situational factors which would influence leadership practices. However, the models still had a linear character, with the leader triggering change.

Professor Yukl has been one of the minority of leadership authorities warning against the simplicity of such models.

What seems to be happening at VW is a leadership drama in which the vested interests play out their parts in a way familiar to students of Shakespearean tragedies. No wonder that Leadership courses have turned to Shakespeare to throw light on contemporary business issues.


This week (Thursday 2th January) it was reported by the BBC that Peter Hartz has been given a two year-suspended prison sentence.

Hartz, a guiding hand behind former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s labour reforms, was fined 560,000 euros ($726,000; £369,000). The former head of personnel at Europe’s biggest carmaker escaped jail after cutting a deal with prosecutors.