What does Innovation have to do with project management?

A lot, and definitely more than meets the eyes of some project managers, who see their role as delivering the project per specs.

Innovation is at the core of every project.  By definition, a project is undertaken to create a “unique” outcome.  Unique means never ever done before and will never be repeated throughout history.  Whenever we are talking about unique, we have to talk about innovation.

When a company undertakes a project, it is because the normal daily operations cannot produce the outcome desired without project intervention.  So, the project intervention has to find innovative ways to fulfill the business outcomes required, by ensuring the project is completed successfully and handed over properly to business.  Projects are about change.  Change results in something new, and without innovation there is nothing new.  

Some think of innovation as breakthrough innovation and that is not accurate.  While breakthrough innovation is part of innovation, it is not the only part.  Many innovation comes gradually and never reaches breakthrough point immediately.  It sometimes takes multiple projects or even programs to create a substantial change in a product, service or outcome.  Most innovation is about finding ways to improve in everything we do.  So, innovation is about improvements even if small, until we reach substantial improvements.

Some think innovation is about ideas.  Again, partly true.  Ideas on paper are just ideas.  The more important aspect of innovation is finding way to execute successfully these ideas.  

Seasoned project managers understand the importance of innovation for the success of their projects.  They look at projects as a chance to go beyond the ordinary and expected, and find better ways to deliver.

Here are a few things you can do to encourage innovation at the project level:

1. Start with a big picture of what the project is, and then ask “how can we improve on previous performance?”

2. Look at new ideas and opportunities that will improve on the product or service 

3. Make it part of your process to pull the PM and technical and business experts before initiation of project to discuss points 1 and 2

4.  Make a rule of “one improvement per project” for all new projects in your portfolio

5. Look at your solutions and services from the user perspective and find new ways to provide value

6. Relentlessly critique current ways of delivering projects and look for chances to improve

7. Collaborate with technical teams and consultants on improvements.  These can be casual discussions with others on how to improve 

8. Stay abreast of the latest research, technology, innovations OUTSIDE your industry.  A lot of innovations and improvements are business related and can be applied across industries.  Do not be stuck in your industry when searching for innovation.

9. Make your focus the business need, not technical features when looking at IT solutions and improvements

10. Be a leader, not a follower; do not accept answers like “everybody does it that way,” or ” this is not doable.” Most of the time everybody does it that way because they do not take the time to think of a better way.  Some things are not doable but most of the time this statement is used as an excuse for complacency.

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