Are you trying to think creatively and come up with something new for your company? Are you working so fast that you don’t have time to think about project management? Are you not quite sure what you or your team should be doing next? Are you spending too much time searching for emails, files, or cost estimates that you can’t find because you can’t remember where you put them? And you don’t really have a project manager… because everyone is working on the project….
In a world where speed may be critical (though luck may be just as important) it can be tempting to skip the typical project management steps and just keep moving.
There are currently two wide-spread approaches that one can take to manage a project of size. The Waterfall method centers around the creation of a Gantt chart. I would argue that this approach doesn’t work well when the next steps are iterative and driven by the results of the last steps. An Agile approach may work better, but what does that mean? There are so many flavors of Agile.
Absent one of those two approaches, there is also the option to simply let the project unfold, as best you can – without too much of a focus on project management. This is when software tools such as Trello or SmartSheet may come in handy. OR even a Google spreadsheet or Basecamp – just to keep everyone on the same page.
I’ve tried just about every approach there is. But when I’m working on any project where there is a constant need to re-adjust, or adapt to changing information, or come up with something innovative, I want another approach. I need more than Trello or a Google spreadsheet. And I’m working with people who can’t be counted on to understand something more sophisticated – like Jira. A Gantt chart certainly won’t work. But I need a way to track costs and effort.
There are traditional project managers who believe that the fundamentals of project management have not changed, so there is no need to fix anything. And clearly the people that write the PMBOK guide believe that there is still great value in using a Gantt chart approach, as evidenced by the number of pages devoted to teaching this approach. I would argue that innovation projects are simply too convoluted for that approach and that we need something else.
I’m not trying to get bogged down in the nuanced distinction between complex and complicated projects. I chose the word convoluted because it can mean intricate, tortuous, difficult, elaborate, complex or complicated. All of those words can be applied to some of the projects that I’ve seen. And from my perspective they describe many of the projects today. So, what project management problems do innovative teams face?
Innovation projects just don’t have a lot of clarity.
Hopefully, there is some understanding of the final goal, and the team can get some consensus around why they are doing the project. But the how part can often be vague during much of the project execution. Teams are flying by the seat of their pants. People simply have to adjust on the fly.
So, it makes sense to delay the detailed planning. Get a basic game plan together from the outset. Understand expectations. And then, spend more time on things that matter. Always focus on what next steps have the highest value.
And to add to the lack of clarity, it can be challenging to just get all of the project files, people information, templates, decisions, and questions recorded, so that everyone knows where to find what’s needed.
You need to be able to capitalize on change without your teams spinning out of control.
While teams are often adjusting quickly, there is such a thing as too quickly. There needs to be a rhythm that allows for focused work, where value is achieved and delivered, and then teams can re-adjust and figure out how to best capitalize on any new value that is presented by the learnings to date.
Work in sprints – two weeks is a good time, but if your project is moving slowly or quickly, you may want to adjust that length. During the sprint, don’t allow change to interfere with your focus on getting the work finished. (If it’s a truly major change, there can be exceptions to this guidance.) At the end of the sprint, take a break and look at what’s happened. Learn from it. Figure out how it will help you improve.
You may be working so fast that you are tempted to skip basic project control techniques.
I’ve been there. This is where having a cadence and a defined process helps. When and how are you looking at risks? Who is thinking about whether any requirements in your procurement contracts are being met? This, in particular, is a legal requirement and you could put your company in danger if no one is paying attention to that. Don’t skip the basic project control processes.
You may not have a skilled project manager at all.
Wouldn’t it be nice if every company had the resources to hire a dedicated project manager for all of its project work? Sometimes it just can’t be. Call me if you are desperate, and maybe I can review the basics with someone who is on your team.
You may be facing significant budget constraints.
It’s easy to read press reports on Richard Branson and Elon Musk, for example, and think, for a few minutes, that the innovative companies in our world have access to unlimited funding. But we know that is not true. Most companies, sooner or later, have to face the realities of budget constraints. And especially when things are moving along, costs can get out of control if you aren’t paying attention.
So, that means that part of your process needs to include some budget management. I’ve written a blog with guidance on that here.
Do innovation projects need a methodology that works? If you think so, let’s chat.