Innovation in project management

Do you need to innovate as a Project Manager?

When you run in business problems to survive you must innovate.

The term innovation means a new way of doing something. It may refer to incremental, radical, and revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations. A distinction is typically made between invention, an idea made manifest, and innovation, ideas applied successfully. Innovation means a need for change. As financial crisis is affecting us so much, small and medium companies are living business necessity. Necessity is the mother of innovation; I strongly believe that is true and applicable to the business times we are living.

If you want to keep your company in business you must earn money to survive. When the usual sources for earning money are not present or does not exist any more because the financial crisis, you must look for other alternatives. So we should start something new, we should start some innovation projects, do something different, business necessity generates creativity to invent new things. The question is if is there any difference between managing an ordinary business project and managing an innovation project?

Project management is the trigger to implement new ideas and there are several tools and techniques that make this process more effective. In most organizations in Europe, there is a relatively high level of competence in project management; however the understanding of how to manage an innovation project is not always as clear.

Europe has the potential to succeed in the global market place, but to succeed; European companies have to be masters, not victims, of change. Learning as an organisation is the only way to make sure that the organisation can change what it does and the way it does it fast enough, and well enough to capture the opportunities and overcome the barriers to growth, so they must innovate. It is important to understand the differences between a regular project and an innovation project.

In the case of innovation projects, we know what we want to accomplish and we may pre-conceived approaches to get the outcome we want, but we often need to adapt how we proceed or even experiment with our metodology. May be an example would illustrate the challenges of innovation projects. Consider the development of a patient portal (Healthcare industry). Let’s say we want to use the portal as an instrument for improving patient compliance with a therapeutic regimen and managing health system utilization behaviors. This is not something you just build like a birdhouse. When we start we may not really know what is required and we may not know the detailed characteristics of the patient population – for example the prevalence of depression and reactions of the patients to technology.  We may also need to see how the patients will react to our ingenious ideas as to system functionality before we “freeze” the design. There are often many aspects of the definition of the system that will require interaction, learning, re-thinking, new insights, adaptation, revision, re-engineering and the like.

I had the opportunity to review  some information about some innovation projects from the European Union, and I have observed the following insights:

  • Loosy defined projects: Innovation projects tend to start with not tightly defined; sometimes even ambiguous objectives that become clearer as the project proceeds. People usually need to feel that they advance in terms of knowledge. In these projects you must move forward with a high degree of uncertainty.
  • More experimental processes: The processes used in innovation projects are more experimental and exploratory and seldom follow strict linear guidelines. Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, identifiable features distinguish scientific inquiry from other methodologies of knowledge. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. Theories that encompass wider domains of inquiry may bind many hypotheses together in a coherent structure.
  • More diversity: diversity to better serve a heterogeneous customer base.Teams need to be more diverse and have a higher level of trust as they explore new territory where failure is a possibility.
  • More risk management sensitivity: With failure as a built-in possibility, innovation teams are more actively involved with risk management in projects and need to learn to fail fast and fail smart in order to move on to more attractive options.
  • More project sale efforts: Innovation projects generally need to be sold to project sponsors and funding committees, a responsibility not always required from normal project teams. Since projects are implemented by people, the ability to collaborate and work effectively on a team is critical. Excellent project managers honor and manage requests, offers and promises. They focus on the most important issues and juggle priorities. They have what seems like an innate sense of timing, which comes from their continual scanning of the business climate and understanding of priorities and concerns of others.

Projects often involve making hundreds of decisions, a process that can be fraught with hazard and conflict unless a well-developed set of criteria for the project has been developed in advance. Projects can also drag on and on with endless tweaks and adjustments unless someone knows how to garner an agreement on what constitutes “done.” Once the end is recognized, the completion should be celebrated, regardless of whether the project was a success or failure.” These are great insights, and should be valuable to any executive who is responsible for managing innovation projects.

Alfonso Bucero, MSc, CPS,PMP, PMI-RMP, PfMP, PMI Fellow

Managing Partner

BUCERO PM Consulting




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