Can the Words “Innovation” and “Project Management” Be Used In The Same Sentence?

Can the Words “Innovation” and “Project Management” Be Used In The Same Sentence?

Can the Words “Innovation” and “Project Management” Be Used In The Same Sentence?

By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D. | Senior Executive Director for Project Management, IIL

INTRODUCTION

Companies need growth for survival.

Companies cannot grow simply through cost reduction and reengineering efforts.

Companies are recognizing that brand loyalty accompanied by a higher level of quality does not always equate to customer retention unless supported by some innovations.

According to management guru Peter Drucker, there are only two sources for growth: marketing and innovation [Drucker, 2008]. Innovation is often viewed as the Holy Grail of business and the primary driver for growth. Innovation forces companies to adapt to an ever-changing environment and to be able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Companies are also aware that their competitors will eventually come to market with new products and services that will make some existing products and services obsolete, causing the competitive environment to change. Continuous innovation is needed, regardless of current economic conditions, to provide a firm with a sustainable competitive advantage and to differentiate themselves from their competitors. The question, of course, is “How do we manage innovation needs?”

INNOVATION AND PROJECT MANAGEMENT

For years, there has been a debate as to whether the words “innovation” and “project management” should be used in the same sentence. Some researchers argue that project management and innovation management should be treated as separate disciplines.

Innovation requires:

  • An acceptance of significant risk, more so than in traditional project management
  • A great deal of uncertainty
  • A focus on strategic goals and possibly no business case exists
  • Unknown constraints and assumptions that continuously change
  • Decision making in an unfamiliar landscape
  • A creative mindset
  • Collaboration across all enterprise organizational boundaries
  • Significant interfacing with customers in every market segment
  • A different leadership style than with traditional project management
  • A set of tools different than what is being taught in traditional project management courses

Some tools typically used when managing innovation include:

  • Design thinking
  • Storytelling
  • Decision-making flow charts
  • Value proposition
  • Business model thinking
  • Wall of ideas with post-it notes
  • Ideation
  • Prototyping, perhaps continuously

Innovation management, in its purest form, is a combination of the management of innovation processes and change management. It refers to products, services, business processes, and accompanying transformational needs, whereby the organization must change the way they conduct their business. The change can be incremental or radical.

Project management practices generally follow the processes and domain areas identified in the Project Management Institute (PMI)® A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Strategic innovation follows other processes such as strategizing, entrepreneurship, changing and investing [de Witt & Meyer, 2014].

But now, companies are realizing that innovation strategy is implemented through projects. Simply stated, we are managing our business as though it is a series of projects. Project management has become the delivery system for innovation activities, but the integration is complex and varies with the type of innovation project.

PROJECT MANAGEMENT IS A BUSINESS DELIVERY SYSTEM

Today’s project managers are seen more so as managing part of a business than managing just a project. Project managers are now treated as market problem-solvers and expected to be involved in business decisions as well as project decisions. End-to-end project management is now coming of age. In the past, project managers were actively involved mainly in just project execution with the responsibility of providing a deliverable or an outcome. Today, with end-to-end project management, the project manager is actively involved in all life-cycle phases including idea generation and product commercialization.

For decades, most project managers were trained in traditional project management practices and were ill-equipped to manage innovation projects. Today, attempts are being made to integrate all of this into a single profession, namely innovation project management (IPM).

PROJECT MANAGEMENT LITERATURE

There exists a plethora of literature on project management. Unfortunately, most of the literature focuses on linear project management models with the assumption that “one size fits all.” While this may hold true in some industries and for some projects, the concept of “one size fits all” does not apply to projects involving innovation. Innovation varies from industry to industry, and even companies within the same industry cannot come to an agreement on how innovation management should work.

The situation gets even worse when companies try to use traditional project management for business processes such as business model innovation, where you have the greatest degree of risk and uncertainty, where traditional risk management planning will not work, and where a great deal of flexibility is needed for decision making. Different project management approaches, many requiring a higher level of flexibility, will be dictated by the level of technology, the amount of product versus product changes, and whether the impact is expected to disrupt the markets.

Project managers need flexibility in their ability to select the appropriate tools for their projects and customize the processes to fit the needs of the projects. This holds true even for those projects that do not require innovation. The future will be flexible project management models such as those used in Agile and Scrum projects.

“Managers need to recognize the type of project at the start, resist institutional pressure to adapt traditional ‘rational’ approaches to all projects and apply an appropriate approach – one tailored for the type of project” [Lenfle & Loch, 2010]. Traditional project management does not distinguish between types of projects. Articles are appearing in literature that propose a methodology to classify projects to guide the design of a suitable project management model [Geraldi et al., 2011].

We have learned from Agile and Scrum that flexible project management approaches are necessary for many projects. This same thinking will be required for innovation projects. We will need different tools and different skill sets than most project managers currently use. 

To learn more about innovation project management, join Dr. Harold Kerzner at IIL’s International Project Management Day Online Conference on November 1.

REFERENCES

Drucker, P. F. (2008). The Essential Drucker. Reissue Edition, Harper Business, New York.

Witt, B. de, & Meyer, R. (2014). Strategy: An international perspective, Cengage Learning EMEA, Andover.

Lenfle, M. & Loch, C. (2010). Lost roots: How project management came to emphasize control over flexibility novelty, California Management Review, 53 (1), 32 – 55.

Geraldi, J. G., Maylor, H. & Williams, T. (2011). Now, let’s make it really complex (complicated): A systematic review of the complexities of projects. International

Journal of Operations & Production Management, 31 (9), 966 – 990.


Harold Kerzner (M.S., Ph.D., Engineering, and M.B.A) is IIL’s Senior Executive Director for Project Management. He is a globally recognized expert on project management and strategic planning, and the author of many best-selling textbooks including Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling and Project Management 2.0. Dr. Kerzner has previously taught project management and business administration at Baldwin-Wallace University, engineering at the University of Illinois and business administration at Utah State University. He obtained his industrial experience at Thiokol Corporation where he held both program management and project engineering responsibilities on a variety of NASA, Air Force, Army, Navy and internal R&D programs.

Have a question for Dr. Kerzner? Leave your comment below.

PMBOK and PMI are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

Comments (20)

  • Eric Uyttewaal

    Harold,
    I tend to agree with you that for many Innovation projects and Agile-approach would fit. Most innovation projects are knowledge-constrained, i.e. they are held back by what we know as human beings. Agile makes a good fit for those projects, just like in R&D and new software development projects, which tend to be knowledge-constrained as well (What requirements? What design? What will attract users?). However, I disagree with the board statement you make at one point: “The future will be flexible project management models such as those used in Agile and Scrum projects.” The future for innovation projects perhaps, but definitely not in the construction industry: e.g. in building a sky scraper, Agilists would ask after every floor: “Do we need another floor? Are we willing to commit the money for another floor?”. I also classify projects in our so-called PIC-matrix (=Project Ideal and Constraint Matrix): One you know the dominant Ideal in the project (e.g. shortest time possible) and the dominant constraint (e.g. limited and firm budget), we recommend what approach you need to take: Agile, Critical Path, Resource-Critical Path, Critical Chain, Earned Value, or Earned Work. After all, the approach you use must measure how well you do on the dominant Ideal AND the dominant constraint for the project. My two cents…
    Eric Uyttewaal, PMP, Author of “Forecast Scheduling” and “Forecasting Progams”

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