“Project Management and Innovation are at the opposing ends of the spectrum, what on earth do they possibly have in common”?
Over the many years that I have been both teaching Project Management and working with companies to resolve Project Management issues, I have heard this statement a surprising number of times. In my view they are wrong but I do know what they mean. The term innovation, by its very nature defines the new, the leap-forward, creativity and excitement. The popular view of Project Management however is that it is about structure, about being methodical, meticulous and largely just plain boring! “It is purely an argument of left brain versus right brain”. While I do not agree that the two are mutually exclusive; I thought it might be an interesting topic to explore in this article.
The dictionary (Collins, 2003) defines innovation as the introduction of new ideas, methods or things. The PMBoK (PMI, 2004) defines a project as an ‘endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result’ and Project management as ‘the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques’ to a project to ensure that a project meets requirements. It would seem from those definitions that there is little conflict and perhaps some overlap1.
Innovation in a product or process context is effectively talking about the “what” we are trying to deliver. Project Management, however is primarily focussed on the “how” we are going to do it!
When we think of innovative organisations we often think of companies like Apple, 3M, or Intel. They are known for innovation and market leading products which breakthrough and consistently challenge their competitors. Although the perception of innovative companies is that they thrive specifically because of their lack of structure and therefore increased spontaneity; many of them maintain a relatively consistent approach to innovation and treat it as a process, although more loosely structured and much less rigid then our normal understanding of standard procedure.
Generally this process begins with the application of a divergent thinking phase to brainstorm all possible concepts to creating unique and novel products or solutions. The usual next phase of the development is to then to apply a Convergent thinking path i.e. application of logic and organisation to refine or group the various concepts into a viable product. A consistent innovation ‘process’ has thus been applied to begin from nothing, harness imagination and creativity but also, of critical importance; to produce something tangible at the other end.
Possessing all of the creativity in the world is of little use to an organisation unless it is able to be captured and translated into producing the exciting products and services that delight us as consumers. The Convergent thinking phase is designed to achieve this and is a key component of the ‘idea nurturing’ process.
However, the concept or product still needs to be delivered and it is here that the innovation process clearly overlaps with the early phases of the traditional project management lifecycle. It is at this point also where Project management has inherited its reputation for being boring, meticulous and soulless. All of that creative energy generated to conceive of these new directions, of happily living in the world of the possible; turned over to those ‘philistines’ in project management who need and insist on clear definitions and detail!
In defence of all of the Project Managers in the world however, at this stage of the lifecycle a possibly revolutionary idea can actually be turned into something of substance and value or conversely, lost forever. We all remember “The Dot Com Boom” where phrases like “Better to be first then right” were common parlance but where a myriad of great ideas and enormous amounts of creative energy were lost and shareholder value destroyed, as many of these companies crashed and burned.
Some of the key benefits achieved by applying a consistent Project Management methodology are:
- Providing a known organisational Project Delivery capacity.
- Providing continual monitoring points and therefore visibility of the project in order to make informed decisions as the project environment evolves.
- Provide a Quality Assurance process for delivering projects which can be evaluated and improved upon in accordance with organisational experience.
Clearly, the above are invaluable attributes to an organization in successfully delivering an innovation to the market. The notion that Project Management stifles innovation in some part probably stems from a resentment of some of the discipline the Project Management necessarily brings.
However, in our experience it is also often due to the clumsy structures and processes that many organisations deploy as their Project Management methodology. In Project Management, one size definitely doesn’t fit all! Too many times we see organizations adopt complicated frameworks which might suit building a 40 storey building when their projects typically last 6-8 months and only have relatively small budgets. Project Management methodology should match the context of the organization’s projects and be integrated so as to enable good Project Management. As much as possible try and customise to the needs of the organisation and remember to start simple and build it up!
Hopefully I have begun to demonstrate that innovation and strong project management practice are not diametrically opposed and in fact work ‘hand in glove’. To this stage however, we have only spoken about innovation from the ‘What’ perspective. There is nothing to stop us from introducing innovation into the ‘How’ i.e. Project Management methodology but we will leave that discussion for another day.
Mark Guiney is a Director of Project Management Development International (PMDI) and holds a Masters Degree in Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
A Guide to the Project Management Body Of Knowledge (third edition), 2004, Project Management Institute Inc, Four Campus Boulevard, Newtown Square Pennsylvania, USA
Collins Cobuild Dictionary(second edition) 2003, Harper Collins Publishers, Westerhill Road, Bishopbriggs, Glasgow, Great Britain