I’m pretty sure that curiosity and innovation are critical for all work in the 21st century. And yet what does that really mean if we are going to redefine project work, as I’ve been blogging about for a while? In this blog, I’ll offer some thoughts.
First a story. I was talking with a friend a while back about a construction project that she was involved in. She was building a house for herself. She had a cost-plus contract. While money was not the primary consideration, she didn’t want to give the contractor a blank check. The designs were done, the ground had been broken, and foundational work was starting. She showed up to the site one day and began talking with the foreman, who was also the project manager, about how the project was unfolding.
There were a number of areas on the drawings where the architect had specified materials that she didn’t remember approving. She is a pretty savvy individual and has enough experience with construction to wonder if these materials were going to increase costs. And then, COVID-19 became a factor. As delays set in, supply chains started going crazy. And then, she began to wonder….
Curious and innovative teams can still manage scope.
We just have to know what the scope is and where innovation might start. We have to have a quick and easy change management process. And we need a clear understanding of what constitutes a true scope change and what is just being agile. I wrote a blog about the need for a clear change management process some years ago.
We also need to recognize that some projects need more clarity in the beginning than others. You don’t want to dig the foundation for a 5000 square foot house if you aren’t really sure that the client wants that sized house. And you probably shouldn’t frame up the kitchen until you are really clear on the appliances that the homeowner has selected.
On the other hand, if the project is about designing a new piece of equipment that will rid landfills of plastics, you will want to build a work breakdown structure with your known scope, as vague as it might be. And you’ll want to put in place cards to represent the other pieces of scope that you anticipate.
Curiosity and innovation don’t mean we skip risk management.
I’ve been a strong proponent of risk management for years. But there is no question that you can’t innovate without taking risks. I deliberately chose a construction project for the story in this blog because it is a more linear project and less impacted by curiosity and innovation. And yet, I want you to see the interface between risk management, curiosity, and innovation.
In a typical construction project before COVID-19, the team would likely have created a Gantt chart and managed the work to that schedule. Activities would be generally well-defined. The project manager would be working to manage scope, costs, and time – and the success would depend on many factors. The expertise of the project manager, the effectiveness of communications, and the whims of the client are strong factors – all human factors.
If the team is doing risk management well on the story I told, how might managing COVID risk and supply chain risk have increased the team’s interest in finding better ways to accomplish the activities? For example, might the team decide that a different kitchen appliance makes more sense early enough to acquire it without delaying the project?
Communication becomes one of the keys to success.
Good communication doesn’t mean emailing or texting your client or the members of the team to death. We are ALL so overwhelmed by the communications that surround us. To be an effective communicator, we need to understand how others prefer to receive communications.
We need to be really clear on where the client’s head is. Is money their biggest concern? Or is getting what they want, even though they aren’t really sure exactly what they want, more important? How much risk can your client take on? And if you are doing an in-house project, how much risk can your company take on?
For years, I’ve listened to the complaints about meetings, and wondered how and when these complaints were valid. I still contend that many project conversations are better held in meetings, where we can look our client in the eye and observe their body language.
We need to find an effective way to manage schedules on innovative projects.
I’m pretty sure that any Gantt chart on this project has changed about ten times since my conversation with this friend. Was the effort to develop and manage one worth the investment? I don’t think so. Perhaps we can engage with Gantt charts more effectively when we are not doing it manually. Perhaps, artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies offer us a better alternative.
Lessons learned tracking shouldn’t wait until the end of the project.
If your project team is being innovative, it is constantly experimenting and learning. So, why not track those lessons as the project is unfolding. Don’t assume that people will remember the lessons. Staffing changes. Memories fade. And future teams can benefit from knowing what has worked and failed you in the past.
Working in short sprints provides a framework that helps ensure that progress continues.
The traditional Waterfall approach can be adjusted to do work in incremental phases, sometimes called Rolling Wave Planning. Some project experts argue that Rolling Wave Planning effectively balances agility and scope management. For another perspective on how we can blend Agile and Waterfall, I recommend this LinkedIn post by Thomas Walenta – Agile Waterfall.
I would argue that much shorter sprints, during which teams deliver something of value, is much more helpful than two, three, or six month phases.
How do your teams use curiosity and innovation to improve a project’s success? How are your teams balancing the need for agility against the need for scope control? I’d love to read your comments.