Mastering the Art of Innovation in Project Management

Projects and Programs are managed in a world of certainty. Innovation is managed in a world of uncertainty. However, there are opportunities to combine these into the creation of new products and services for your customers. To do this we must understand how to create projects and programs that integrate the uncertainty with the certainty.

Why Aren’t We More Creative?

While many of us may understand the need to think more creatively in the management of our projects we just can’t find the time. Why is this? There are three main reasons:

  • We’re off track—so we focus on the technical aspects of our project – under the illusion that the problems we’re encountering must be technical.
  • Our methodology is rigid–we are told to go through the stages and steps within our project management methodology and not to stray away from it. We are assured this is designed to create success but it is too rigid.
  • It’s not the PMI approach–even though we know, fundamentally, there is no such thing as managing a project by following the PMBOK (because it doesn’t provide a process – only terms and definitions); we remain constrained in how we will manage our project.

The Project Manager’s Dilemma

How can we be creative in a structured (project) environment and how can we be more innovative? Creative people always say they can’t be structured and project people say they must have structure. Can these two groups really co-exist? Yes, they can, but it’s time to throw out these pre-conceived notions. Rather, we must identify where and how we can be more creative in our projects. We don’t need to throw out our structure and processes. Rather, we need to understand how to be creative within them.

The Triple Constraints

As project managers we often throw up the Triple Constraints; scope, time and cost. We usually ask our Sponsor, “What is most important to you? Is it to complete the project fast, good or cheap?” We think this is a reasonable question; after all, how can we possibly deliver all of them? Then we explain that there needs to be “trade-offs” between time, cost and scope. After all, how can we deliver all of them? Based on our experience it doesn’t seem possible. But we rarely produce any data to support this discussion. It’s just our feeling (based on our experience of course) but without any data to back it up. So the Sponsor patiently listens.

If I were the Sponsor, this is how I’d respond back to you, “Thank you for raising these concerns. I’m glad I’ve given you an opportunity to vent your frustrations. I hope you feel better. Now go and complete the project.”

The current thinking around these Triple Constraints is that it is no longer a model that is referenced. Review the PMBOK Guide ® – 4th Edition and the reference to it stopped there. In 1.3 – What is Project Management? The guidelines states that “managing a project” typically includes:

  • Balancing the competing project constraints including, but not limited to:
  • Scope, Quality, Schedule, Budget, Resources, Risk

So, the bottom line is that that we must become more comfortable with integrating the certainty with the uncertainty. Our Sponsors expect us to figure it out. We must be able to manage within these constraints. This is where the application of innovation in our projects becomes important.

There is a certain amount of creativity inherent in all of us. It just might take a little work to draw it out. So let’s talk about what makes a project manager and team innovative and how you can apply more creativity to your projects.

Innovation and Creativity

We often use the words “creativity” and “innovation” interchangeably but we shouldn’t. Creativity is about individuals coming up with ideas. Innovation is about “bringing ideas to life.” For example we use creativity in our project teams to come up with the ideas. Then we use innovation to move these ideas from vision to reality.

Albert Einstein, the German born physicist who developed the Theory of Relativity, believed that a requirement for innovation is a strong culture of asking questions rather than delivering answers. He taught:

  • Creativity begins with asking questions…
  • Innovation happens when you find answers…
  • More questions, better answer
  • No questions, no answer
  • The important thing – never stop questioning

Stephanie Kwolek, an American chemist who invented Kevlar believed that another requirement for innovation is to move beyond the status quo. He said, “A large part of innovation is welcoming difference. You have to be open to the unusual and understand that difference is often positive, not negative. A lot of people see something unusual and assume that it’s wrong. Innovation is the ability to see something unusual and recognize that the answer may lie in its difference.”

The lessons from these two wise scientists are clear: always question what we do and challenge the status quo.

Understanding Innovation

Innovation is not the result of some lonely genius inventor hiding in a dark corner, coming up with great ideas. Nor is it just about ideas or about individuality in thinking. Innovation is about involving people who will challenge the status quo.

Innovation is a collaborative process; where people in many fields contribute to the implementation of new ideas. This occurs throughout the execution of a project.

Howard Gardner is an American developmental psychologist and a professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. He believes that creative individuals are too often ostracized by society and their ideas are often overlooked. He has said, “Most cultures throughout human history have not liked creative individuals. They ignore them or they kill them.”

This is an important thing to be aware of if we wish to be innovative in the managing of projects. How well do we react to the ideas and suggestions of our team? Do we tend to undermine them? I believe we do. Too often we either evaluate or criticize a team member’s suggestions or come up with other ways to identify “rational” reasons why they’re not acceptable at this time. Essentially, we kill potential ideas before they’ve had a chance to see the light of day. This is contrary to innovation. So, while we may know that innovation is collaborative, somehow we manage to miss this point and “rationalize” why other’s contributions are not relevant.

Traditional vs. Creative Project Management

Traditional Project Management

Traditional Project Management starts with the assignment of a project manager who will scope out the project; under the illusion that they have all the required knowledge. After all, they were asked to be the Project Manager.

The Project Manager will then develop the project plan independently; again, under the illusion that they have the necessary project knowledge and that this will save the project resources time by not having to engage them in this process.

The Project Manager will then delegate portions of the plan to the project resources who will be responsible for carrying out the planned activities. There will be no commitment on the part of these resources to do these assigned tasks and it is uncertain if they’ll actually complete their tasks within the required time.

The Project Manager will hold regular meetings to review project issues – the lack of detail in the project plan forces these meetings to focus on project issues rather than planned vs. actual schedule and budget progress. They’ll manage project problems as they arise because there are usually many of these each week. It is common that there will be several meetings a week and that the project manager will supplement these with a lot of one-on-one meetings with various project resources

Creative Project Management

Creative Project Management requires that the Project Manager will create a project team. This will begin the process of engagement and commitment. The team will collectively develop their team’s roles and responsibilities – so that everyone knows who’s involved in project success and what skills, knowledge and experience each of them adds to the overall team.

The project team will scope out the project to ensure there is a common understanding and agreement of scope. By engaging the entire team in the process it will be done faster, with more comprehension and complete team buy-in. The project team will then develop a detailed project plan. At Business Improvement Architects our research has shown that by creating the entire plan with the full team, teams will get a plan that has four (4) times the detail. And they will accomplish this in about one-quarter of the amount of time it takes compared to the project manager creating the plan on their own.

The project team will hold regular meetings to review project progress. Having a detailed plan will make reviewing project progress much easier. This entire process will give the project team more time to think creatively about how to manage any issues that arise.

Traditional Project Management Can Be an Organizational Challenge

On one major project I recently audited I identified that a major constraint on the project was the traditional approach that had been taken to this project. The project manager created the scope document and plan and then shared it with the key resources on the project. Consequently, they lacked commitment. They viewed this as the project manager’s project – not theirs. This resulted in individual resources doing what they thought was required of them but not reporting when their work got completed. Working independently led to problems with project communication because other resources were not made aware when they could begin their portion of the work.

The most important lesson for them was to work as a team. This ensures that all resources are fully engaged in the entire project management process.

Let me close with some basic thoughts about management that may further help you master the art of innovation in project management:

  • Regarding productivity—Consider American Management Consultant, Peter Drucker’s famous quote about productivity in which he states: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
  • Regarding change—Don’t hold on to the past. Honour it but move on. In our organizations we must stop doing that which is not driving our projects forward, that which is not meeting all of our customer’s expectations and that which is not engaging the entire project team.
  • Regarding goal setting—Aerospace Engineer and Inventor, Bert Rutan’s suggestion, “Set a really difficult goal. Half the team should think it’s impossible” This is what will drive into your project teams to be more innovative.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

For more information about this article you may contact Michael Stanleigh at