Innovation has become a key expertise and is essential for success in a rapidly changing strategic environment.
In a way, if we think about it properly, every project, even if it looks like a duplicate, is undertaken for the first time.
A project team may not be the first to design a particular product, but it will be the first to build THAT exact product, which must be built at that time, using that team, with those suppliers and those limits.
Project management is based on opening up new horizons and doing things that have never been done before.
This puts innovation right at the heart of what the project manager does every day.
The role of the innovation in project management
Innovation, as a management expertise, is difficult to be defined.
In a commercial sense, the term “innovation” refers to the translation of an idea into a commercially marketable product, thus giving the wrong idea that only people like Steve Jobs and other visionaries can be called “innovators”.
On the other hand, the dictionary’s definition – “doing something in a new way” – is too broad to be meaningful, since many “innovative” ideas have failed to produce real value.
Consider, for example, the mechanical bread slicer: invented in the early 1920s, this slicer was described by early users as impractical and cumbersome. .
The customers thought that the sliced bread looked unattractive, because once sliced, it was difficult to hold the bread together long enough to pack it in an orderly fashion.
The problem persisted until the baker Gustav Papendick decided to improve the device, by placing a cardboard tray that would hold the bread together long enough for the wrapping machines to work.
The mechanical bread slicer alone was therefore not an innovation and did not provide real value to the customer.
It was only when Papendick combined the bread slicer with the cardboard tray that real value was added, which was an innovation.
Project management: traditional models vs. innovative models
Traditional project management models have focused almost exclusively on the delivery of products and services, i.e. results with precise and measurable execution criteria.
In this context, innovation opportunities are generally only focused on problem solving.
For example, when faced with a risk that needs to be avoided or mitigated, a project manager often needs to generate ideas that add value – innovate – in order to determine appropriate reaction to the risk and emergency plan.
The most recent project management models, on the other hand, focus mainly on achieving a result.
Scope, planning and costs are important, however they are subordinate to the overall results that the organization is trying to achieve.
For example, the task of a project manager could be to improve customer loyalty by 10% in one year.
In this model, the project manager’s work is partly tactical, i.e. responsible for executing the scope of work over the indicated time period, and partly strategic, i.e. responsible for:
- Interpreting business strategy
- Assessing the feasibility of the goal
- Analyzing the cause of the problem
- Advising and/or creating a solution
- Formulating a work environment
- Executing the project and monitoring performance
- Ensuring the achievement of strategic objectives
In this model, innovation becomes more pivotal for the project manager’s work.
The project manager must actively look for ideas that add value throughout the project lifecycle in order to ensure the achievement of the result.
The attitude of an organization towards risk will strongly influence the ability of a project manager to carry out innovation.
Understanding innovation in project management
Innovation is not the result of a lone ingenious inventor – at least not in most cases – but it rather concerns the involvement of people who test the status quo.
Innovation is a collaborative process, where people in many areas contribute to the realization of new ideas.
Too often, a team member’s suggestions are evaluated or criticized or other ways are found to identify “rational” reasons why these suggestions cannot be accepted at the moment.
In short, many potential ideas are killed before they even have a chance to see the light of day.
The project manager is therefore responsible for motivating the team to openly express new ideas and creative thoughts.
Furthermore, it is necessary that any new idea does not get judged or classified negatively, however it is important that a constructive dialogue takes place in order to explain – if necessary – why one idea cannot be implemented.
In conclusion, like any other skill, the ability to innovate requires time, practice and a favourable environment.
When innovation is limited because of risk aversion or a reluctant environment to listen, competence cannot be developed.
When competence is not developed, companies struggle to remain competitive and fit for the market, leading to long-term negative results.