Project Management Innovation

Currently I am reading The Future of Management by Gary Hamel. I find the subject of innovation very interesting, and the specific subject of management innovation even more so. It is easy to see how innovative products can change our world. It is much harder to see the way that innovative practices (which are intangible) have or will change the our world. One thing that is striking me as I read this book is that its scope is innovation in the way that a whole company operates, and the target audience is typical management. I was wondering, however, if some of the ideas in the book might translate into slightly different domains. Specifically I was wondering how you might apply them to IT Project Management (the area where I spend most of my time) and what benefits you might get out of applying management innovation ideas.

Hamel suggests that companies should make room for innovation, and make innovation part of everybody’s job. His claim is that traditional management practices drive all of the slack out of processes making them very efficient, but also giving people no time to be creative. He also thinks that pigeonholing people as “not creative” and putting all creative and innovative activity into a silo, walled off from the rest of the organisation, means that there is a vast pool of underutilised innovation in most enterprises. Addressing these issues could help organisations address the gap between the amount of innovation they are producing and the amount of innovation they need to keep competitive.

Could we apply these ideas to projects and project management as well? I certainly think the answer is yes. I think that IT projects could benefit from management innovation – after all they have a ridiculously high failure rate, and I’m sure everyone who has worked on them has seen the ridiculous level of wastage that they can incur. My experience has been that projects are often inefficient beasts, even though they are usually staffed with bright and dynamic people – why is that? Well, it seems to me that we could use some of that underutilised human creative potential to address some of those project issues! Here are some ideas that I think may be good ways to introduce the spirit of innovation into your project.

  • Make sure that everyone on the project understands, and focuses on, how the project is supposed to be benefiting the business. That way they can focus on what is essential (delivering specific business outcomes) versus what is inessential (the specific management processes and practices this project is using to deliver those outcomes).
  • Give all of the people working on the project some authorised time to think of ways that they could innovate within the project. This allows you to access everyone’s creative potential – and gives them permission to be innovative. They all have experience with project processes and their inefficiencies, they all have previous experience they can access – and doing this you can access it too.
  • Start small, build up. Initially, perhaps people could just think of incremental changes to processes to improve efficiency. Later they could think of bigger and more ambitious ideas about how to change the way people work, or the project is structured.
  • The innovation initiative should be practical. If it isn’t generating anything helpful, either shut it down or change it. But equally, if it is generating good ideas record them, and even measure the benefits derived so that others can learn from your initiative and to show its usefulness.

These are just a few ideas about how a project manager or technical leader might encourage innovation in their project. I don’t think these are the only ways, or even the best ways, to do so: they are just some ideas inspired by reading Hamel’s book. If you can think of betters ones, I’d love to hear them! And, if you are unconvinced of the value of introducing innovation into IT project management, then just think about this: some of the biggest changes in project management over the last few years – the agile movement comes to mind – must have come from a project that was brave enough to embrace the spirit of innovation and many project failures must have come about because the project wasn’t open to innovation and instead kept doing the same old things.

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