How to Promote Innovation on Projects


For the most part, when you say the words project management and innovation in the same sentence, you get blank stares and head-scratching. This is often driven by the outdated view of project management as a rigid framework for command and control of a project, its resources, and all of the decisions that are inherent in that project.

But over the last several years, a more nuanced relationship between management and innovation has begun to emerge, and I have witnessed its emergence with my clients in fields like IT, entertainment and the nonprofit sector.

This more nuanced role has taken some of the best ideals from methodologies like Waterfall and Agile and combined them with creativity and flexibility to create environments where innovative new ideas are harbored and created, while deadlines and ship dates are still met.

To say that encouraging innovation within your organization means that you succumb to a project management methodology that has no framework at all is false, but likely the best methods for achieving innovative outcomes on projects is going to be closer in relationship to Agile than Waterfall.

Because a decision and project framework gives you the backbone for setting goals and understanding where your projects are in their lifecycle, it is important to lay out a basic framework from which to make decisions.

The basic framework that I use when allowing my teams the flexibility to make decisions while still taking innovative action more closely resembles risk management than either agile or waterfall and contains these four elements:

  1. Set goals, objectives, and timelines
  2. Plan and initiate
  3. Project implementation
  4. Monitor and change

Here are some ideas on how you can apply this framework in your own business.

Set Goals, Objectives and Timelines

Most of the time, when we think about allowing our teams to innovate, we freak out because that seems like we have opened ourselves up to a blank check and endless meandering down interesting pathways and through countless pointless changes.

By beginning any project with a clear outline of the goals, objectives and timelines, every decision that the executives and the project teams make in regards to a project can be made in the context of what the established measurements of success have been established. 

In many instances, many of the changes and delays come because these measurements of success are only loosely defined or are fluidly enforced.

To ensure that this doesn’t arise in your projects, you should build in milestones, check-ins, and meetings along the way where your progress is measured against your outcomes. Planning in this context will enable you to much more successfully focus on your teams and your managers.

Plan and Initiate

After you have established your desired outcomes and assembled at least a rudimentary project team, your project should move into the plan and initiate phase.

In almost every project management methodology, planning is listed near the top of importance, takes the most time and has the capacity to create the kind of friction that will ground your projects to a halt.

By starting out with a series of outcomes and timelines, the planning process is simplified and can largely be completed by laying out the milestones and timelines in a manner that is consistent with the end goals.

When planning for innovation, it is important that you don’t establish goals and timelines that are so rigid that they have the effect of forcing your project team into positions where their accountabilities and timelines are so well documented that they become glorified order takers and box checkers.

To maximize the ability of loose planning to encourage innovation in your projects, it is best for you to do the amount of planning that enables you to set some clear checkpoints and milestones while letting you see the correct jumping off point, but not be planned so rigidly that every activity throughout is predetermined.

Project Implementation

This is the point in any project where you as the executive or project manager are going to have to put faith in the goals and objectives established and the planning that was done at the outset.

The implementation stage is where your project teams are going to have the chance to play with the goals and objectives that you laid out at the beginning of the project.

The challenge for most executives and leaders that come up in this phase will arise because they don’t understand what the process of innovation should look like in an organization.

To be clear, each organization is going to look different when it is innovating, but a few things stand out in most innovative environments:

  • Failure is occurring and when it does, the failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Your team feels empowered to find solutions, not just to perform tasks.
  • Open and honest communication is occurring at all levels.
  • Teams are encouraged to connect, share ideas, and collaborate.

These are only a few things that will show up in your organization when you have created an innovative environment.

Monitor and Change

Despite the freedom that you want and have to provide your teams, you still need to maintain some perspective and understanding of where the project is, how it is lining up with your outcomes, and whether or not the project still fits the necessary requirements of what the market needs.

To effectively monitor the project, you have to have started with clear goals, outcomes, and timelines established. If you have done this step, you should have some natural points that you can use to establish check-in points and points of reference for your project.

When monitoring, to hedge yourself against the chance of micromanaging and squashing the type of behavior and thinking that encourages innovation, you want to make sure that you frame your questions and feedback in fairly simple terms such as:

  • Meets goals/timelines/expectations
  • Exceeds goals/timelines/expectations
  • Doesn’t meet goals/timelines/expectations

Once you have this feedback, you can begin to make changes to your project by using questions to uncover the reasons for the success or underperformance of the different aspects of your project.

You could frame your questions like this:

  • What was most helpful in helping us meet this timeline?
  • When we got ahead of schedule on this project, what were some of the factors that enabled that to occur?
  • What seems to be the major cause(s) of the slow down in our schedule?

With all of this information, now you can undertake the final step, making changes.

The best way to establish constructive change will fluctuate from organization to organization. But the best practice is to construct a clear framework for change management that allows you to consistently understand how the change process is being adapted.

In my projects, I use a simple three-step process to make sure that I hit the right tone in addressing necessary changes and a mechanism that enables me to ensure that follow-up is going to take place.

The 3 steps that I use are:

  1. Prepare for the change
  2. Initiate changes
  3. Reinforce change

In preparing for the change, you want to spend time planning the adjustments or new responsibilities associated with the changes that you are instituting. So this will be similar in manner to your initial planning stage where you frame your changes in the context of the outcomes that you are hoping to produce. Except in the change process, you have the added benefit of all of the actions and results you have achieved up to this point.

Once you have prepared your change plan, you want to initiate the plan. The most important part of initiating change is that you must communicate openly and consistently with your project team including explaining how the changes impact them, why they are important, and what the new expectations are.

Finally, it is important to reinforce the change. It is likely that you will need to continue to monitor the new activities. It is also likely that you will have to reinforce the new outcomes and behaviors that are necessary to create the new outcomes. Because this process can be frustrating, it is important to keep in mind that communication is the key to successful change because effective communication will help smooth any transitions and give you a better opportunity to achieve the results you desire.

The best way to sum up successful innovation in any project environment was given to me by Level5 Consulting CEO Steve Gunsior when he told me, “Innovation in projects is built on trust, but make sure you verify and confirm at points along the way.”

Innovation can also be aided by using the right tools, such as one that makes planning, monitoring and reporting on your project easy so you can put your mind to more creative tasks. Try ProjectManager with this free 30-day trial and see how its online, collaborative software suite can help you.

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