Managing an Innovation Project

Part 1: Entering the “Innovation Space”

By Brian C. Dougherty

Not all engineering projects are the same! Think about building a new stretch of highway – it’s a huge project requiring lots of expertise including everything from materials science to structural engineering. Engineers on a project like this are skilled at understanding and working with the defined requirements, drawing upon existing technology, best practices, and will rely on well-established development pathways and traditional project management techniques in order to ensure quality, consistency, and a safe finished product. It’s a huge job with lots of challenges, and there is a recognized way to get the job done.

Now think about bringing a brand new concept to reality. It’s never been built before. There are no defined requirements – you have to define them. There is no existing technology to build upon – you have to figure out what will work and what will fail. Both of these examples of engineering projects are challenging and require special expertise – but they are radically different from each other, so it follows that they would require radically different project management techniques.

At Rose-Hulman Ventures we specialize in bringing our clients’ innovative ideas to reality and we’ve learned how to manage projects that require a high degree of uncertainty. These projects tend to be very loosely defined and produce a lot of surprises along the way. We call this the “innovation space.” Managing these projects really means managing the discovery process.

In traditional engineering projects, the project management procedures are essentially a roadmap to a successful and predictable outcome. Procedures exist to keep project managers from getting overwhelmed by the logistical details. In a sense, they are the equation you can “plug and chug” your way through to get a good result.

In the innovation space, where you are doing something that’s never been done before, discovery will dominate your effort. In effect, the innovation piece of the project becomes the critical path and, in my experience, the logistics can simply be dealt with ad-hoc, if the project manager is reasonably skilled.

Engineers working in the innovation space won’t find security in following traditional project management pathways. In the innovation space new knowledge is being discovered every step of the way that can radically divert the development plans. Engineers in the innovation space benefit from being nimble, comfortable with uncertainty, and skilled at incorporating new knowledge and requirements throughout the development process.

So, is the innovation space for you? If you have bothered to read this far, then I’d say your chances are good.

In Parts II and III of this series, we’ll look at how to handle traditional project management challenges, such as scope creep, risk management, quality control, scheduling, and budgeting, within the innovation space.

Managing an Innovation Project Part II: Limiting Scope Creep and Managing Risk
Managing an Innovation Project Part III: Schedule and Budget, Quality Management, Project Planning, and Communication