How to Innovate in Project Management: An Interview with Alex Cowan, Intrapreneur


This is just one of a new monthly interview series where we profile entrepreneurs, innovators, business leaders and project managers. Our goal is to explore different roles and challenges in leadership and project management and highlight new models of project management.

Alex Cowan, Venture DesignAlex Cowan has been an entrepreneur (5x) and an intrapreneur (1x) in the enterprise software & communications space. He’s currently advising global corporations on Startup-Driven Innovation at Synapse Partners and teaching product design for digital at UVA Darden.

At Synapse, Alex is Managing Director of the advisory business, which helps corporations innovate like a VC and execute like a startup. Synapse Partners is reinventing corporate innovation by connecting Fortune 500 companies with the technologies, practices and startups that are shaping the future.

At UVA Darden, he’s focused on software and product design in digital, currently teaching three classes: Applied Digital Innovation, Software Design and Software Development.

Prior to Darden, he was founder and CTO of Leonid Systems, which was acquired by BroadSoft (NASDAQ: BSFT). His Venture Design framework is widely used by practitioners and instructors for new product and venture creation.

Tell us about your Venture Design Framework?

I’ve always favored leveraging existing material… it’s almost always the best thing for your reader or student. In my area that’s the body of work around design thinking, design research, Lean Startup, business model design and Agile.

What I learned over the years, though, was that with all the material out there, practitioners were overwhelmed and they were doing what anyone overwhelmed with too many choices does: nothing (or not much). Yet there was a natural sequence to that work, to where you should focus at any given time.

That’s what Venture Design is about- Do I need to be interviewing users or running an experiment? Should we build some software now or is that likely to lead to waste? How do we marry the practice of agile with a truly innovation-focused, human-centered approach to our work?

Why do you think Agile should be married to Design Thinking?

We produce a lot of software that no one uses. Figures and their applicability vary, but it might be over half for established products and 90% for new products. I know that you can at least cut that waste rate in half with design thinking, assuming that means going out and knowing what problems really existing for your users and testing your ideas in small batches.

That’s equivalent to doubling your development staff, which blows away just about anything you can do with traditional management techniques.

What is the biggest fallacy about Agile you think people should know?

That it’s not about project management. That it’s not just a minor variation on doing things where now you work in 3-week iterations. And also how important that is if you don’t want your corporation to become Blockbuster Video, if you want your startup to have lots of shots at success, you need to start from the fundamentals of Agile. That means creating self-organizing teams and breaking your solution into a series of small testable ideas. As a friend of mine said, you can’t take a nine-month idea, break it into two-week iterations, and get Agile.


Agile is not about project management.

– Alex Cowan


What do you mean when you say Agile is not Project Management?

Traditionally, in project management you’re trying to optimize a set of inputs (people, etc.) against a set of relatively specific goals and success criteria. If I was going to build a bridge or an airplane, I would definitely use project management. Now, I know there are other (non-Agile) ideas about what it is or how it should work, but I think this is still the prevailing view and practice.

Software and digital innovation in general has this very low maximum efficient scale because what we’ve learned is that if you want genuine innovation, you need to have a team that’s free to collaborate on solutions based on their observations as they go along. This is pretty much the opposite of that traditional view of project management and, as I mentioned, you can’t just add a couple of Agile-related methods to a traditional project and get substantially better outcomes.

Do you think innovation is an essential goal of every company?

Alex Cowan, Teaching Agile I do. I don’t want to bore your readers with the housekeeping of innovation strategy, but there is this “horizons of growth” concept where there are three horizons. Horizon 1 is incremental improvement to an existing business. Horizon 2 is entering new businesses with new business models or new technology (but not both). Horizon 3 is disruptive innovation with new technology and business models.

Depending on the business or entity, they may ascribe more importance to one or the other of those types of innovation, and that focus is important, but I think now every healthy business needs to be executing well on at least one of those horizons.  

There’s a lot of buzz in the past few years about how failure is a good thing for innovation. Do you buy into that idea?

I think it’s a phrasing meant to be unexpected or startling for effect and that it can be useful or destructive depending on your audience and circumstances. Failure sucks—you don’t want it.

But how do you define failure? That’s probably the most constructive question. You can make the statement that corporations with consistent track records on innovation make room for experimentation. You can’t premeditate and build a big scalable plan all the time and consistently get innovation—it’s inconsistent with the definition of innovation and the easily observable results about what works. If you’re a serial experimenter, then failure means running a process that’s not disciplined as opposed to an individual concept that’s not marketable/scalable. Nowadays, that means you’re using something like the Venture Design process.

Does that mean you should go in and tell your boss “We should embrace failure”? It depends, but probably not. I had a student tell me about how they had a manager tell them “No one in my family has failed in three generations. Forget it.” What you should probably tell that boss is that you want to commit to a disciplined process for experimental solutions to whatever problems/opportunities you think are worth solving.

How do you recommend people introduce Agile to their teams?

By taking my Coursera course on agile! Just kidding, but I think it is important to make sure that the practice is paired with a culture of observation and experimentation. That experimentation should pertain not just to the approach you’re taking to your output but also to the way you’re working, your practice of agile. If you look at successful practitioners on a large scale, Spotify for example, they start with an established methodology like scrum but then adapt it on a team-by-team basis based on their observations about what’s working for them.

What do you think is the role of leadership in an Agile environment?

Oh gosh—I mean, Agile isn’t leadership in a box. Your happy place is these small (seven-10 people) self-organizing teams that are building something valuable for the user and for the business. As a leader, you have to get everyone there and keep them there.

That still a superb execution from the company’s leadership. Most important, the leadership has to decide where the company is going to focus and what constitutes success. Then that has to trickle down to the individual teams in terms of their charters. Easier said than done- just that part is doable but certainly it’s challenging.

Not every team is going to work and it’s the job of managers to figure out how to refactor and fix that.

Then you have all the G&A stuff—that all has to be done, but that’s better understood.

What is your one piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Make sure you care about the problem you’re solving, be that a job that the customer has or a habit/desire they have. That’s important because what’s probably motivating you now is your vision for the solution you have in mind. What actually is going to be successful will probably be different than that, but if you’re committed to the problem and a disciplined process, you have very good odds of being successful.

All kinds of teams use our hybrid online project management software to help them manage their projects. From manufacturing to marketing, construction to creative teams, is used because it is a simple, yet powerful way to get things done. Start a free trial today.

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