Home » Change Management » The Project Management Secret Of Innovation

“Fortunately for the company, one developer had been building this exact piece of software for over a year.”  — Software Development Times, November 1, 2010

How many times have we seen great innovations and leaps in productivity come from downward directed company wide initiatives backed up by a platoon of contractors fanning out training everyone?  In my 30+ years?  Never.  I’m not saying it can’t happen, it is just I’ve never personally seen it nor had direct contact with any company or person who had experienced such an initiative in a clearly successful manner.  (For more see: Don’t Get Everyone Project Management Certified.)

The Project Management Secret Tool of InnovationHow many times have we seen a new jump in productivity or quality come from a small team in the company who have been using something or developing something — often for years?  In my case and experience, this has been almost the sole source of real and innovative changes.  The innovation always had to be eventually embraced by upper level management to fully mature and provide benefits.  However, this was often hard for senior management to do — and many did it too late — and the techniques, methods, or products would had been incubating for usually a significant amount of time before being “discovered.” (For more ways to encourage innovation: Don’t Squash Your Project Management Pockets Of Excellence.)

The downward directed change can work just fine, if we understand how it will probably play out.  Too often we expect such an initiative to “suddenly” change our ability to deliver products or projects on time with innovations and quality.  More often these downward directed initiatives need just as much time, and a similar small cadre of believers, to incubate and then come back to benefit the organization.  (See avoiding other improvement pitfalls in Seven Ways to Make That “Silver Bullet” Work.)

Innovation and creativity often come because the environment allows or encourages it to happen rather than plans for it to happen.  For the innovative project manager this “incubation” of future capability rather than only planning based upon a schedule and ROI, while seemingly counter-intuitive, is a project management tool that works.

Thank you for sharing!

12 thoughts on “The Project Management Secret Of Innovation

  1. Wow, and to prove your point even more:

    WORKetc was developed by a small team of people that wanted something better for business management, for themselves. This wasn’t first produced as a market product. They just wanted something that made more sense. They created WORKetc, which combines CRM, PM, and billing into one – revolutionizing small business management through software. It was made available to the public later on, but you couldn’t be more correct!

  2. Bruce Benson says:


    Absolutely. A “real business need,” a good solution and a smart way of changing. Training fits well in this kind of equation.



  3. Yes it’s true top down directives don’t work, people have to want to change before they will adopt a new approach. However hot all training and development delivers poor results. A key element is identifying a real business need and then putting enough concentrate effort in to make the change stick.

  4. Bruce Benson says:

    I think we often do that already, measure the coach (the PM in this case) by the overall performance of the team (or projects).

    I do think we often fall into a “sweet spot” where we’ve convinced ourselves (the organization) that we really can’t do much better than we are doing (or we really are trying as hard as possible – so this is the best that can be expected).

    College ball can get away with this, where the team is pretty mediocre each year – and that is OK, but I don’t think professional ball can. It always surprises me when a big name company settles (often unknowingly) into this kind of complacency.

    Have fun.

  5. Bob Light says:

    Agreed Bruce, but I think that large companies are typically tough places for true innovation to thrive, as competition for resources is high, and “processes” bog down creativity. It does happen true, but most often large companies are consumers of innovations created by small companies.

    So are you suggesting that sabermetrics be applied to project managers? Hum we could track PCOT and PCOB (projects completed on time, projects completed on budget), but maybe those are too obvious. How about SCR and D2F (scope creep ratio and defects to features). ;>)

    Thanks for the mid week thought exercise!

  6. Bruce Benson says:


    Yes, you are absolutely right. Companies like 3M and Abbott labs have done this for years. Any company that funds R&D can be said to be doing some of this.

    Supporting innovation is more like playing the stock market, where we know some stocks will do well and some won’t, but we’ve done the math (historical past performance, etc.) and we know that enough will be successful that we’ll have a net gain.

    The typical project manager thinks more discreetly and expects X activity to produce Y benefit in Z amount of time. If any given X does not achieve its benefit in the alloted time, then there must have been bad planning or unanticipated events. Instead, we “seed” a bunch of Xs and only expect a fraction of them to bear fruit – but enough to achieve the overall effort’s ROI. The second approach is to go hunting for the Xs that have sprouted up on their own and see if any of them will help our current project (or be tracked and nurtured for later cultivation).

    Baseball’s “Moneyball” is another good approach :-).

    Thanks for the note.

  7. Bob Light says:

    To play a bit of devil’s advocate here, seeing as how it is early in the week…;>)

    Doesn’t a company influence its environment, and thus can’t it, via planning and control of that, drive innovation? Assuming that were true, would a company want to hire only the most creative/innovative people?

    Innovation often requires taking on risk and can come at a cost, both of which are strongly avoided in tough economic times, or for short term benefit. Of course, it can always be short term, just look at the coaching position for the Redskins…

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