Book Review: Thinking on Purpose for Project Managers: Outsmarting Evolution

    By: PDMA Headquarters on Oct 04, 2013

    Book Review: Thinking on Purpose for Project Managers: Outsmarting Evolution      

    By: Bill Richardson. Oshawa, ON: Multi-Media Publications Inc., 2009. 328 pages. 
    Review by: Gerald Mulenburg

    thinking-on-purpose-2nd-edIf you've ever wondered about the many poor decisions that are made in life, this book identifies why and what can be done about making better ones. In clear, no-nonsense writing, the author, Bill Richardson, provides the background for why we make decisions the way we do, what is sometimes (often it turns out) wrong with the way we do it, and how to make better decisions through what he defines as thinking-on-purpose. With project managers as the obvious target audience for this book based on its title, the content is equally useful to others in any situation where problem finding and solving is needed. Richardson says that better problem finding and solving is a major problem on projects, and in this book he provides project managers with a wealth of information to aid them in their thinking with practical applications for doing so. A major problem in projects Richardson says, is thinking on autopilot, which he defines as reacting to events as they occur to obtain quick-and-dirty, or good-enough solutions, so that when a solution is found, it becomes the solution. Using this as the basis for needing to think on purpose in decision making, he takes the reader through a series of simple steps to help recognize ineffective patterns of thinking created by personal biases, emotions, and blind spots that cause the problems he identifies, and then describes how to increase awareness of them in order to consciously choose your mindsets—how you think about what you think about. Richardson states that, “… a project manager who doesn't actively strive to develop a strong sense of foresight is essentially driving around in a car with a rearview mirror, but no windshield” (p. 14). He says this forces project managers “to rely on trial and error” (p. 14). His thesis is to apply active effort, “To become more purposeful in your actions, and to expand your insight and foresight, you need to do less of your thinking on autopilot and more of your thinking on purpose” (p. 15).

    His reasons why we often make poor decisions are supported by background information about how the human brain works. In the beginning of the book, he briefly describes how the human brain evolved from a few nerve cells in the earliest cold-blooded animals into what he calls the lizard brain, then to a mammalian brain, and finally to the remarkable human brain of today that he calls the learning brain. The current human brain, however, provides us with some situational responses attributable to the early brains that we continue to carry along with us and sometimes results, in the author's opinion, in our making poor decisions because we don't think them through but simply react as an animal would. These reactions make up some of the key human traits used in our thinking that cause us to sometimes unconsciously operate on autopilot. Evolution has hardwired our brains in this way to make decisions through the mindsets that we carry, but often don't control. This is how we grew to react to situations without needing to think, and how we continue to use some of that in our decision-making today. “The problem is that our brains are optimized to pursue quick-and-dirty ‘good enough’ results over rational observation and logical thinking” (p. 43). He supports his premise of hardwiring with a discussion about the nature of human thought being governed by many factors including brain plasticity and pattern recognition processes, plus our emotions, biases, assumptions, and mindsets. It is because we bring these unconscious factors into our decision-making processes that our thought processes sometimes cause us to assume that patterns exist where they may not, and we unconsciously apply biases and mindsets to result in poor decisions. Richardson says to overcome this unconscious tendency in making decisions, “For you, as a project manager, the key to successful problem solving and decision making is engaged thinking” (p. 44). He outlines a straightforward five-step process to guide us to what he calls purposeful decision making: (1) frame your purpose, (2) qualify your information, (3) identify your mindsets, (4) structure your thinking, and (5) validate your outcome. He also describes three likely problem-solving scenarios in the book that a project manager might experience, and throughout the text expands on how the methods of thinking on purpose can be applied to these situations. The first two thirds of the book provides background information and details about how to think on purpose using these five steps, with a detailed discussion of each step, its importance, and some consequences if they are not used. To counter the relentless pull of autopilot thinking, he also provides the reader with his 10 top nuggets as a summary “of the bare minimum you absolutely need” (p. 116). The remaining one third of the book is a well-chosen toolkit of 40 tools and techniques that you can apply to a wide variety of problems to achieve thinking on purpose for your particular situation. This compendium of 40 tools and techniques by itself is a valuable contribution to problem solving and decision making. Ranging from affinity diagrams through cause and effect diagrams, decision trees, force field analysis, mind mapping, and Edward de Bono's six thinking hats, there are methods for everyone to apply to every type of problem-solving situation.

    Eight appendices in the book provide a bibliography, plus details and tips for self-assessment with separate guides for problem solving by applying the various tools and techniques in different situations, and in different phases of project problem solving. In this useful and easy- to-read book, the author provides the reader with the necessary background to understand why an increased emphasis on problem finding and solving is needed in projects, what needs to be done to overcome the business-as-usual approach, and how to do it using a toolkit of many tools and techniques. The primary critique of the book is the brief information provided, only one page for each of the tools and techniques. The toolkit by itself could easily be expanded into a separate book with more details and examples for applying this set of tools to help structure our thinking for better clarity and creativity that would aid all problem solvers and decision makers. As it is however, the toolkit is an excellent place to begin applying thinking on purpose to your project management.

    Released: October 4, 2013, 11:38 am | Updated: November 20, 2013, 10:46 am
    Keywords: PDMA Blog


    You must create an account or login with your existing account to provide comments or article ratings.

    Copyright © 2017 PDMA - Product Development and Management Association. All Rights Reserved

    330 N. Wabash Avenue, Suite 2000, Chicago, IL 60611 USA   |   Phone: 312.321.5145   |   Fax: 312.673.6885

    Contact PDMA   |   Legal Policies & Agreements