Project Management and Innovation
by Jeff Belding

Is Project Management as You Know It Obsolete?

What do you think of when someone asks you if you manage projects? Pert and Gantt charts? To-do lists? Assigning tasks to people on your project team? Over the years I’ve have managed many projects in high tech product development for companies such as Apple, Inc. For the last decade or so I’ve been teaching what I call “project leadership” to a wide variety of project teams. Why "project leadership"? Because I found—after many years of managing innumerable projects—that successful projects are done by successful project teams. In other words, successful projects require human leadership to get project teams to focus and accomplish something that has never been done before—always with too few resources within too little time!

Every time I introduce the project leadership concept in a workshop, I hear groans and see nods of agreement from the audience; leadership is indeed one of the biggest challenges of managing projects. I hear this challenge not only in my familiar arena of high-tech product development, but just about every discipline in several different kinds of organizations—high tech, financial, non-profit, and more. The situation is always the same: getting support from team members is not easy, just because they are assigned to the team doesn’t mean they will commit to the project.

Over the years I discovered that successful teams had ways of working together that were fairly consistent. Communication and education were the key elements of these successful teams. These teams had the ability to articulate to the greater project world—management, customers, and other stakeholders—the project end-result, the value of the project to the organization, and the success criteria for the project. These teams were also good at “learning their way” through the project. Education was a two-way process; they knew what they needed to learn from others and knew how to help others learn. They had to be open to trying new things—all the while evaluating the results to see if they were nearing their end goal or if their course was needing correction. The actual tools they used for keeping track of tasks and charting progress were not nearly as critical to the team’s success. More often than not a simple spreadsheet was the main tool. The thought processes and the learning the team and its members did was much more critical to the team’s success.

Five Elements of Successful Project Teams

In my work, I’m always hearing that teams never have enough time; they want something that will take less of their time to learn and to use. The length of my workshops is now 1-2 days at the very most. The template that I have been using is a simple, one-page spreadsheet that consists of space for the five elements essential to communicate and educate all parties about the project. The five elements are:

  • Project End Result—The “what” of the project, why it’s important to the organization and the success criteria.
  • Critical Success Factors—The make-or-break issues that need to be resolved for the project to succeed. This includes management of risks that could be damaging to the project.
  • Project Scope—The interdependency of resources, time, and features of the project. This is the tool most project leaders use to understand the impact of changes on the project.
  • Key Relationships—The level of support and required actions from all the team and greater team members to get the deliverables of the project accomplished.
  • Schedule—The planning and articulation of the deliverables and milestones of the project. (This is where most inexperienced project leaders leap before understanding the above items!)

When these elements are carried out well, project teams will be successful. In fact all formal project management processes include some form of these elements, whether or not they call them out specifically. Understanding and being able to use the above elements has given most project leaders the tools they need to manage projects—from the simplest to the most complex.

BUT! Is this Enough?

With today’s intense competition, numerous development efforts, and hectic pace, the above process moves very quickly. But—does this process really create an environment that fosters innovation? Are team members’ talents being used as effectively as possible? Are team members able to spend time creating more and better results for their projects? How can we manage projects in a way that leads to real innovation?

Innovation, according to Barnes & Conti’s new Managing Innovation™ program, is defined as: “Optimizing the potential benefits embedded in an idea that is new to you.” This program gives teams the tools they need to think through and create innovations. The Managing Innovation workshop presents an “innovation journey” framework of five distinct phases. When I participated in the program, it dawned on me that this indeed was an amazing way to manage projects.

Managing Innovation uses a combination of thought processes—included in the more traditional framework described above—along with a groundbreaking process of facilitating innovation. The program enables a team to come up with innovative results from their project ideas. The team is made aware of the mind-set, skill-set, and process differences among the phases. The management of each of these phases may take better advantage of the skill sets of the team by allowing the person who is best at each phase’s process to manage it. This implies that each phase has a set of activities and skills that are typical, though not exclusive to that phase. The conscious use of specific mind-sets, skill-sets, and activities throughout the innovation journey makes what is essentially a complex and often “messy” process more manageable.

These are the phases included in the Managing Innovation process:

  • Searching—In this phase, ideas that meet needs, respond to opportunities, or advance the organization’s strategic goals are deliberately hunted and gathered. At the end of the phase, opportunities will have been defined, there will be many ideas, and those beginning the innovation journey will be challenged and inspired.
  • Exploring—Ideas and opportunities are organized, debated, and analyzed in order to understand them in depth. Ideas need to be tested to demonstrate that they are practical and to ensure (as far as possible) that the proposed innovation is wanted by potential internal or external customers.
  • Committing—This is the phase where we move from “what could we do?” to “what should we do?” The focus is on what to do, what not to do, and how to get the right people committed to support you.
  • Realizing—In this phase the emphasis moves to execution—from the “what” to the “how.” It’s all about achieving goals.
  • Optimizing—In this phase the emphasis is on maximizing benefits: increasing the degree to which the idea has been exploited fully. Optimization or exploitation is central to the concept of innovation—otherwise a firm is engaging in invention or adoption, not innovation.

After learning more about this workshop, it’s easy to see how applicable it is in the project management world. Being aware of the activities that are required for each phase and communicating that to the team allows team members to do the activities to create more potentially innovative solutions for their project. And the leader for each phase may be the same person or another team member, if that person is more suited to the activities.

The basics of project leadership alone (as outlined above), can be used for some projects—but when the results require an innovative solution, using the Managing Innovation process will yield a greater likelihood of success. I have come to believe that many—if not most—situations require this kind of critical and creative thinking to maintain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

The challenge is this: project leadership, as most think of it, is a way to manage results and relationships toward the goal of creating satisfied expectations on the part of management, stakeholders, and customers. Using the Managing Innovation approach to project leadership and management can create a result that will exceed your stakeholders’ expectations and at the same time provide your team with an exciting opportunity to learn and grow.

Jeff Belding is Principal of JP Associates, Inc. (JPA)
. Jeff specializes in project leadership training and consulting to project and management teams. Skilled in the management of cross-functional teams, Jeff successfully led the SuperDrive project at Apple Computer. Prior to his work with Apple, he led product management teams at Atari, Inc., and managed programming teams at SDC (now Unisys) for telemetry simulators for use by NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

Jeff draws upon his extensive experience to design and deliver client-specific project management/leadership training and consulting programs. JPA’s clients are managers and team leaders who want to get a project team in-sync and moving together to achieve results in a predictable manner.