Innovation, Project Management and Brain Storming

When many think of innovation they overlook the current structure of companies. The people in your company that keep projects moving are the project managers. They are the ones setting up, planning, tracking and de-risking projects. This group of individuals has a lot of work on their hands but they also have the option of a standards body (PMI Project Management Institute) to help them stay on track. In fact, the standards body has outlined 42 process groups that are categorized into 7 knowledge areas for project managers to use. What does project management have to do with innovation? A lot. First, it is harder to develop processes and concepts for innovation without considering how projects will be tracked and moved through your organization. Secondly, and perhaps surprising to some because we often think of standards as stifling innovation, there are many lessons one can learn from PMI practices.

According to PMI there are 4 Rules to Brainstorming:

1) Identify the Objective

2) Record all the ideas

3) Make sure nobody criticizes

4) Build on other people’s ideas

Having worked with a number of companies, I know how hard almost every single one of these seemingly simple rules is to follow. Thanks to modern technologies, the easiest rule is to record all the ideas.

The most difficult by far is the first rule – Identify the objective.  Clearly defining the objective is quite a complex, time consuming and difficult task. When organizations don’t have as many resources and want to be innovative they need to find time to set up the objective for innovation teams, projects and competitions. Even when looking at disruptive technologies, the problem or area that your team is looking at needs to be broken down to its core.

I used to think that if you brought the right set of people into a room to resolve an issue, things would work themselves out or you would kill one another trying. That thinking changed when I started planning facilitation sessions for a high tech company in 2004. Fortunately the facilitators I was working with were good at what they did and asked questions to really focus on the problems that I wanted to solve. They made sure I narrowed it down so that an outcome was achievable in the time frame that was allotted. The same is true for innovating. Teams need to clearly identify the objective of innovation and idea generation.  Without identifying the objective, ideas take longer to come up with and are not necessarily aligned with where you want to go as a company.

There are other processes in project management that make innovation less organic, like the control scope process. Control scope involves looking at variances from the plan and working to bring them in line with the original scope – to control scope creep.

The final rule, build on other people’s ideas, is fundamental to brainstorming and to innovation. Innovation is a social activity that involves a number of ideas building on top of one another, at the right time. Just as a successful company is not run by one person alone, a successful innovation needs many people to bring their insights and ideas to the table. It is the mixing of ideas and collaboration on the objective that brings about great innovations.

This brings up the question as to whether innovation projects need to be project-managed or should they have their own way of being accountable and measured.   What do you think?