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“Employees volunteer to work on new ideas, and they generally do so on top of their day jobs, not in lieu of them. A small team of five people is dedicated to innovation, but most of their work involves assisting the ad hoc teams, doing things such as coordinating development scrums to get prototypes going.” Information Week, “Innovation Atrophy” May 30, 2011, page 25.

Project Management And Innovation Can Conflict

Ugh. That never worked for me. You know, having folks volunteer to work on innovations or having a dedicated “innovations” team. Kind of like having teams dedicated to “quality” or “process improvement.” All these are great to do in concept, but at least in my experience, over-organizing them like this can undermine their effectiveness.

I’ve written, for example, about how one company over-managed a Six Sigma effort and later cancelled it for not resulting in noticeable improvements. I had seen this consistently throughout my corporate and military careers. Putting too much organization around something that is either innovative or otherwise is central to how we individually do our jobs just too often seems to result in undermining an otherwise great idea.

I do like the notion of having a team that helps other teams or individuals to innovate. Where I’ve seen this to be successful is where a department has seed money to help innovation efforts get some of the resources they need (software, equipment, materials, staff, etc.). I like the Google notion that one can use 20% of their time to work on something the individual wants to do. I always did this anyway, without a formal company policy, and it was where I developed most of the initiatives and insights that helped organizations kick their software or product development up to the next level of productivity and quality.

The Information Week article also mentions how one company “urged innovation teams to create prototypes in six to 12-month cycles — 18 months max.” Ugh, again. It still strikes me as possibly too much structure on an innovative process. Sometimes, we found we could leverage the current system and have a prototype working as fast as over a weekend — and not scare people too much. But the project management tool I found that works is first encouraging innovations, getting a lot into the pipeline, and then letting them pop out as they are ready (though many will never come out). There will be a dozen things going but we’ll have no idea which ones will bear fruit and in what order they’ll pop out and become something useful. This to me is a better model then something that tries to plan an innovation that we’ll get done in six months (though having a incubation pipeline that happens to average out to a new innovation every six months is doable).

Using this kind of approach, we’ll periodically notice something in incubation that would be a great thing to have right now and we’ll jump in to help it along. Otherwise, planning for innovation with a strict project management mentality can strip the innovation out of the idea and get everyone into a performance mentality of hitting deadlines and burning down the backlog. That just is not how I’ve personally seen most successful innovations work. Of course, once we have the idea prototyped and we realize we have something, then we can wrap our favorite project management methodology around it and drive it efficiently to production.

I’ve found that innovation is something that is generally not predictable nor plannable except in an arms length non-deterministic way. Too often, in getting excited about doing something new, we have a tendency to over manage and over plan what are often serendipitous creative activities. These are probably better managed by encouraging their pursuit, often through whatever means they happen to take, and by not overwhelming then during incubation with too many project management tools and methods.

Where have the better innovations come from within your organization or project?

Thank you for sharing!

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