Greg Geracie, Actuation Consulting, Take Charge Product Management, Steve Starke

The Five Tips to Project Management Innovation

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The word “innovation” can be interpreted in many ways. The image persists that innovation is some mind blowing new thing, which often produces high value, high return, and commercial success. Webster’s simply defines “innovation” as the “introduction of something new; a new idea, method, or device.”

Strong product managers are market focused and are usually considered innovative. They tend to be entrepreneurial in nature, inspire cross-functional teams, and drive innovation. However, the concept of “innovation” is not frequently associated with project managers.

Many would argue that project managers are not required to be innovative. They’re trained to work within the limits of the project and focus on managing the central aspects of  the project; scope, schedule, and cost. Disruptive or breakthrough innovations may be difficult to achieve in the scope and time frame of a project manager’s role. Project managers may be perfectionists, good at improvising, and handling people issues; but innovative? Not really!

However, I’ve found that most of the great project managers are, in fact, innovative. I would go so far as to say, if you want to be a great project manager, then being innovative is a pre-requisite for the job. In fact, there is growing market acceptance of the role that project manager play in the innovation process.

Innovation starts at the idea generation / conceive stage of the project. A tight collaboration must exist between project and product managers during this stage if the product development project is to be successful. Leveraging the expertise of project managers at the earliest phases of a project helps to get this definition correct by bringing their best practices and lessons learned to the table at a critical juncture – the start of the project.

Engaging project managers early has additional benefits: (1) Project ownership is now ingrained into its leaders because they’ve helped shape the execution approach; (2) By working together to form the overall project definition in the beginning of its life cycle, the foundation of a team dynamic is put in place that favorably impacts the rest of the project as it’s delivered.

Project managers have the best overall view of an entire project, and, as their teams are tasked to improve metrics (cost, timing, quality), the project manager is definitely an excellent starting point to look to for ways to improve the overall process for driving those metrics.

With defined leadership roles, they’re key assets to getting these early innovation stages correct. They’re more in touch with the business drivers for the project and can be your evangelists for managing teams through the entire project.

Specifically, here are five ways that I believe a project manager can and should be innovative and add value during these early stages of innovation:

  • Development of the process of product development, including the initial steps, marketing analysis, user and customer research, product design, and post development work, like operations and commercialization. Nothing ensures maximizing ROI more than getting the definition correct at the onset of a project. Knowing where you’re going and how to get there, at the beginning of the life cycle, eliminates waste by avoiding unnecessary course corrections throughout a project.
  • Making sure the right constituents are in the game at the proper points of the life cycle minimizes later back-tracking. Any junior project manager can take notes and plot dates, but key project leaders allow the product manager and development team to focus on what they do best – create value.
  • Exploring divergent exercises and tasks where new options are created and explored in an un-biased manner. The first solution, may not be the correct one – finding the best solution should be the project manager’s goal (project managers are typically taught to settle on workable solutions not the best solution).
  • Understanding core problems and needs and tasks where customer  problems are evaluated. This includes expanding on the initial set of “high-level” goals, quantifying the business case, etc.
  • Managing the “idea” to insure it receives enough attention. This may include joint facilitation sessions in the writing of the concept document for a new idea.

When project managers incorporate these behaviors into their leadership activities, they’re applying project management to the fuzzy front-end and becoming an  innovation manager. These front-end innovation managers typically have exposure to new efficiencies found in Agile techniques, modified timelines, or improved processes around tracking deliverables. All of these items should be considered during innovation AND qualify as innovative activities.

Innovation suggests risk and many of today’s project managers view risk as a career limiting factor. However, to be successful in today’s product development world, project managers must be innovative to enable their team’s success.

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