Saturday, January 20, 2007

Innovation and Project Management - Mutually Exclusive?

One of the most common complaints we hear against project management is that it kills innovation. "Oh, here come those project cops. They will put rules on everything, force us to do all kinds of unimportant things. This is the end of innovation. This project is dead because the project manager won't not let us work freely so we can innovate. Because only innovation will bring the really great products".

Sounds familiar? So many PMs have to struggle with teams (mostly engineers) who don't believe in project management. Who see project management as a damaging force that will stop any real production and will eventually kill the project. Over time, everybody begins to accept this mindset. Where there is project management, there cannot be innovation. And, where there is innovation, project management will suffocate it.

Powerful argument. Not because it has any merit, because it doesn't. But still, it's powerful because everybody seems to accept it as some kind of tautology. Too often, executives are scared to bring project management into the company (or group) because they are afraid to kill this wonderful tender baby - innovation. PMs are also at a loss as to how to make projects and innovation live in piece together and so, they end up unintentionally fulfilling exactly the "curse" they want to avoid.

This whole concept of "project management kills innovation" comes from a misunderstanding about what innovation involves. Everybody knows intuitively what innovation is and what it is supposed to give us. The problem is that most people usually interpret "innovation" (often subconsciously) as "give us a free hand to do whatever we want, however we want, whenever we want. We are artists and therefore, must have full freedom from schedules, scope, planning, cost constraints, etc. But don't worry, if you give us this essential freedom, we will do great things for you. Not quite sure what, not sure when. Not even sure we will deliver. But trust us, if and when we are done, it will be great. Because it's innovation." So, move aside project management, here comes innovation.

Not so. I hope, everybody realizes that complete freedom does not work. Yes, if you remove all the annoying restrictions (schedule, scope, cost, etc.), the engineers, given enough time, will eventually do something very nice and innovation will have proven itself. What I mean is that in our industry, we usually do not have this luxury. The customer wants its product with the agreed scope, on time and within budget. To the executives and the customer, innovation is not the goal. At best, it's the means. The goal is the exchange of added value (deliverables for money), and on time. If the PM is not going to manage the project and try to ensure the team hits the above constraints, he/she will be considered to have failed and even the project itself may fail. A failed project means a great deal of money that was invested for nothing and non-materialized revenue.

Now, in order to prevent misunderstanding, let me make it very clear:

Innovation is good! Innovation is very important. Every company should have some.

The trick is, how do we have innovation and project management?

The points that I'm trying to make are:

  • Innovation must not exclude project management (and vice verse).
  • Innovation and project management can live together.
Yes, innovation and project management don't have to be mutually exclusive. The trick here is:

Innovation should not be prevented. It should be controlled.

Many people will think that this statement is an oxymoron. Controlled innovation? I say yes. You can do great innovation even with some control mechanisms. This is done all the time in R&D organizations. Even innovators should (and can) do some planning and execute to the plan. The difference is that with innovation, the plan should be less restrictive and more flexible. But there must be some plan and tracking of execution to the plan. So, say "No" to something, someway, sometime. It's OK to ask even innovators What? How? and when?

Let's look at two general cases:
  • Innovation within a regular project.
  • Innovation as a project.
Innovation Within a Regular Project

With the right planning, innovation can live within a project. Project Managers must be very careful not to completely block innovation within their project. Instead, they need to plan for some innovation and be prepared to accommodate it.

Do not allow ambiguity in the innovation work in the project. Instead:
  • Innovation work must be officially identified, requested and approved. This is the most important part. Innovation must not be in "Skunk works mode". It should be presented, and justified. Not only why this is a good idea but also why now, in this project?
  • Innovation work must be incorporated into the plan and tracked as a risk.
  • Mechanisms should be in place to allow termination of the innovation work, if it exceeds its planned constraints.
  • If a project no longer can accommodate the innovation activity, have in place plan to:
    • Complete the project without the innovation part.
    • Spin the innovation work off to a stand-alone effort or into another project.
Innovation as a Project

This, IMHO, is the best way to go. As I note above, innovation is very important for a company and any company should cultivate it. However, within a regular project, this is possible only on a limited basis. To really cultivate it, the company should recognize that innovation work should be given its own, separate space. When a company prepares its high-level strategy, it should include R&D project work. By including it at the strategic-level planning, it makes the commitment to allow and support innovation. This means dedicated R&D projects that go in parallel with the "regular" (revenue generating) projects. This means the company will put aside the resources and money to cultivate innovation. This way, innovation will have its own life to prosper and ultimately benefit the company.

Note that I don't say "innovation work". I say "innovation projects". This is not accidental. Even in its own "innovation track" innovation work still cannot be allowed to do something, sometime, somehow. Any work in a commercial enterprise, even innovation work, must be subject to (at least) the famous 3 constraints - scope, time, cost.

Innovation and project management are not mutually exclusive.
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Pawel Brodzinski said...

As usual, I agree, but not entirely. I think you exaggerated a bit with project management versus innovation conflict, although there is much truth in what you wrote about.

I'd add one more situation beyond those two you described (innovation within a project and innovation as a project). It's a mix of those. You can find them when you make project (usually a smaller one) for customer or partner you know, and get on, well. It usually takes a creative project manager on customer's side and flexible team on vendor's side. Then, you leave some typical PM techniques just because it'd kill creativity and agility of the project. You agree that you'll discover several dead ends, you'll throw away some of your work, but as far as the customer accepts that, and pays for that, it's OK. You just have some barely controllable innovation on board, exploit pros it brings and accept cons. Yes, accept, not try to control or limit or fight with.

Albeit it's the PM's nightmare, I believe this kind of organization in specific projects can work with great results. I've seen several of them.

mosgot said...

Pawel, and as usual, you correctly find additional perspectives for the issue.

Regarding exaggeration, maybe this is just my personal experience but I did encounter a lot of resistance to project management, especially from engineers and that was their justification for resisting. Maybe you had more luck than me.