3 Important things to build innovation into your Project Team

  • 29 June, 2022

I am sure you are familiar with the idea that innovation is a company's key to success. Innovation and creative thinking allow the best companies to stay ahead of the competition and discover solutions to problems that may not even exist yet. That all sounds great in theory, but in reality, these practices can often be quite difficult to implement.

The truth is, many project managers are hesitant to let their teams innovate in the real world. Most leaders and people, in general, like to think of themselves as open-minded and collaborative. However, when faced with tight deadlines, unhappy stakeholders, or complex dependencies, it is a project manager's natural instinct to manage risk. We want our projects to be completed successfully, on time, and on budget. Potentially, allowing teams to innovate increases the risk of work not being completed on time or even compromises the quality of the work done. However, "innovation" does not have to mean "gold plating," nor does it have to mean that the project will derail into an unmanageable monster.

Yes, project work is by nature "defined and contained." Whether the environment you find yourself in is agile or traditional, work is always contained to either an iteration or a project. Allowing your project team to have the room to do the work that they see fits best can sometimes seem counterintuitive. What if the work that is planned doesn't get done? What if the team doesn't deliver what the customer asked for? What if the team spends much longer than they should have on something instead of "just getting it done?"

The truth is, allowing your team to innovate is not a recipe for disaster as long as there are three things in place:

  1. Robust change management practices and standards
  2. Great communication amongst the project team, stakeholders, and the project manager
  3. An acceptable level of risk agreed upon by the project sponsors

Most likely, innovation will help your project (and your organization) in the long run! Let's go through the three items above in more detail. Then, I will highlight the benefits and some prime examples of successful innovation on projects.

Allowing Your Project Team to Innovate

1. Robust Change Management Practices and Standards

Your team should never feel stifled. At the very minimum, project teams should feel as though they have the resources needed to get their jobs done right. That being said, if changes need to be made to a project, it is important to have good change management practices in place. If a team member feels as though it would be more beneficial to accomplish the goals of the project in a different way, they should propose their idea to the project manager. The PM will then implement established change management practices in order to determine with the project sponsors if the change is acceptable. Not all ideas will be implemented! We have to make sure, as good managers and leaders, that we are striking the right balance between what the team wants to do and what the needs of the project or organization are.

2. Great Communication

In order to foster an environment of collaboration and keep morale high, there must be great communication amongst the project team, stakeholders, and sponsors. First and foremost, your project team must feel comfortable bringing new ideas to the table. This may mean that there is an open forum established where people can voice their concerns and collaborate together in a judgement-free zone.

The project team must also have a complete understanding of the goals of the project, as well as risks, constraints, and assumptions. If an idea is rejected, the team or team members should be able to understand why their idea could not be implemented at this time. Perhaps the outcome of the work would not align with the current project goals, or maybe the risk of failure is too high. Speaking of risk, your project should also establish...

3. An Acceptable Level of Risk

Here is the bottom line: allowing your project team to come up with new and inventive solutions is the key to developing cutting-edge solutions. However, this requires a mentality that not all organizations are willing to adopt: that change is constant and that risk must be tolerated to a certain degree. A project manager (or company) which aims to keep up with the competition and do things differently is one that is also willing to accept a higher level of risk. These risk levels are usually identified in the planning stages of the project, before work begins. We must acknowledge the fact that if we choose to allow our project teams to innovate, there is a higher chance of a negative impact event occurring.

However, this does not mean that highly innovative companies accept all levels of risk. There must be a certain threshold - a dollar amount, a timeline shift, or a compromise to quality - at which point the project will not tolerate more deviations from the original plan.

That being said, when innovation is done right, it accelerates a project or organization to the next level. Your project will:

  • Focus on long-term solutions. Projects which focus on long-term solutions while also performing the work that needs to be done in the short-term will prevent rework or even additional projects later. Focusing on innovation is simultaneously focusing on quality. Your team will be thinking about the long-term impacts of the decisions they make now.
  • Foster a culture centered around learning and collaboration. Human beings naturally want to come up with creative solutions to problems. Stifling creativity will quickly lead to a culture of apathy. If project managers allow learning and collaboration in the workplace, the team will work better together. They will want to share ideas with each other, without fear of being shut down. They will also have...
  • Improved productivity and morale. Your project team will come to work happier and get their best work done if they know that their work and ideas make a difference. Your team wants to feel pride in their work!
  • Reduce costs. Sometimes, innovation comes with a higher up-front cost. However, if risk is managed successfully, the organization can save money in the long run. Project managers must ensure that they are performing appropriate cost-benefit analysis to determine the best course of action on a potentially expensive endeavor.
  • Increased competitiveness. Developing cutting-edge solutions over following the status quo means that the organization stays one step ahead of the competition. This increases your company's public image and branding, making the project more profitable.

4. Examples: Hypothetical and Real-Life

Let's first use a hypothetical example that could be applied to many scenarios. You are managing a software project in which a new system needs to connect to four other systems via an API. You have done risk analysis and solution design with the team and determined that the fastest way to complete this project will be to build an individual platform for each piece of software.

However, one of your project team members brings up a counterpoint: maintaining four new platforms will be expensive in the long run to maintain. Though it will take more initial design work and be more complex, managing all of the connections on one platform will be much easier. Therefore, your team may agree to do more up-front work in order to save overhead costs in the long run.

Let's look at an example from a real-life company: Ford. Ford is the oldest motor company in the United States and seemed virtually untouchable for many years. The organization has had to adapt to a significant change in recent years, as consumers and shareholders look to an electric vehicle-focused future. Ford knew that the way they conducted business and built their vehicles was no longer sustainable if they wanted to remain at the top of consumer's minds for the next 100 years.

Ford is now leading the shift to electric vehicles, building massive new campuses and pouring $11.4 billion into electric vehicle battery plants over the next few years. They have introduced an innovation accelerator program, called IdeaSpace, where great ideas are crowdsourced from selected participants. Ford has announced that they aim to make electric vehicles only by 2035. For the company that originally invented the Model T, they are sending a signal to the world that they're not done being the "best" just yet.

Innovation does not have to be as difficult to foster as it may seem. There are well established ways to manage innovation and risk on a project. It should come as no surprise that many projects that do not establish innovative practices are destined to face rework or sub-par quality over time. Fostering a culture of innovation and new ideas can quickly take your organization's projects from good to great.

About the Author: Madison Florian

Madison Florian is a content writer for EduMind, certified PMP and PMI-ACP. She received her BA in Economics from the University of Colorado and has experience as a project manager for a wide range of corporations, ranging from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies. In her spare time, she enjoys reading novels by the fire, baking for her family and friends, and traveling to new places in her converted van.

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