Is It Possible to Keep Innovation Alive with Project Management?

Is there room for innovation with project management when schedule variance, cost variance and earned value are followed so closely by well managed companies? I would say there is room with project management processes such as change requests and risk and quality control however it isn’t as much as at the onset of the project as the work is being planned out.

You certainly have more time for the team to dedicate to innovation if they aren’t on a tight timeline and budget to complete the project yet these constraints also encourage more creative thinking to meet goals and deadlines.  From my experiences in the innovation program management realm Project Management is necessary in Innovation programs. There are a few differences that can help keep innovation alive.

First, more time is spent prior to project initiation. In order for this to happen companies need to have the right mix of people coming together to spend a significant amount of time thinking, researching and brainstorming together. In PMP (Project Management Professional) lingo this would be prior to the project charter as part of the business needs and SoW (Statement of Work). This can involve setting aside a certain percentage of time on ‘thinking’, like the Google 20%.  What really helps this set up is collocation and allowing the team to continue working on projects outside of the innovation work so that the team still has their ears to the pulse of the company and the industry. This also helps when the time comes to sell the innovation projects to the rest of the company. The team already has credibility from their past and current work within the organization outside of the innovation projects.

Second, the metrics for innovation projects need more flexibility than existing or improvement projects. With new technology concepts or business models there aren’t the same performance benchmarks because the innovation doesn’t have all that much to compare against. Often it can take longer for the innovation product or service to take off as well. Milestones and deliverable schedules do need to be adhered to but if there is a new finding then more flexibility will help the outcome greatly.

Third, be prepared to stop the project if information comes to light that things aren’t going to work out; whether it is a technology, timing, market or whatever issue that appears to be a large alarm. This is part of willingness to fail with innovation. It is far better to fail quickly rather than keep spending energy on projects that aren’t going to be taken well in the market. Forget about sunk costs – they’re sunk and part of developing successful products and services. Forget about projections.  Allow room for failures and learn from them. Hopefully the failures happen earlier in the process so your company can return to the planning phase faster and focus on projects that are still viable for innovation.

Finally, having the right project sponsors is fundamental in innovation projects. If you have the folks that believe in your team and in innovation then managing the sponsors and stakeholders expectations becomes all that much easier. Without this support, with every change to the project you are going to have to justify the project each step of the way. With a supportive sponsor you’re really looking at how the planned changes will affect the project rather than fighting to stay alive at every turn.  I have been fortunate to have a few directors that have stood out in terms of their support of innovation and change management projects both in telecommunications and IT. Knowing I had their support made the project much easier, fun and more successful in the end.

Project Management is a must in the business world and innovation is most definitely possible with it. The guidelines around innovation have to be adjusted to account for the type of project you’re working on. If it is a process improvement or an existing product/service improvement than less flexibility needs to be put in place than a completely new concept.

How does project management fit in with innovation at your company?