Managing an Innovation Project

Part III: Schedule and Budget, Quality Management, Project Planning, and Communication

By Brian C. Dougherty, Director of Engineering

Schedule and Budget
Traditionally, schedule and budget are the two metrics by which project managers are measured. However, with highly innovative projects—involving what we call the “innovation space,”—it’s very difficult to predict how long things will take or how much they’ll cost.

My solution is to use best/worst case scenarios for planning. Your numbers will not be completely accurate, but you can use the extremes to improve the project plan as you go along.
Quality Management
Strict adherence to schedule and budget can create pressure to reduce quality, so it’s important to enforce quality metrics as well. However, in the innovation space, you often don’t know what level of quality is good enough. Remember, these projects are frequently about finding out what is possible and practical. As a result, I find it helpful to take time you might otherwise spend wrestling with a quality management tool and dedicating that time instead to additional communication with the various stakeholders. This allows you, as a group, to frequently monitor and—when needed—adjust your quality metrics as things move along.
Project Planning
In a traditional project, any deviations from the established plan need to be carefully analyzed and understood. In the innovation space, however, plans are much more fluid and must be continuously adapted to meet changing needs and new information. This calls for much more active planning.

Just remember, all plans are guesses, and although past experience can help, in the innovation space you don’t know what you don’t know, so guessing too far into the future is folly. The trick is to plan just far enough ahead.
At Ventures, we:

  • plan thoroughly for the next four or five days knowing exactly what each team member will be doing.
  • have a rough plan for the next few weeks.
  • keep track of long-term goals, deadlines, and major obstacles to make sure they are not getting overlooked.
  • revise the entire plan every 2 or 3 days.
  • constantly monitor progress on high-risk items.
  • watch schedule and budget closely and consider whether unmet challenges line up favorably with the resources remaining.
  • set timing deadlines that are neither too ambitious nor too conservative.

Communication
In the innovation space, decisions need to be made frequently, and these decisions cannot be made in a vacuum. All of the stakeholders need to be kept up to speed.

In small projects, all stakeholders should know everything that’s going on. But, on larger projects, it’s better to limit information to areas where stakeholders have actual input. This isn’t a matter of hiding information, but, rather, making sure you don’t overwhelm team members with too much information.

Summary
Project management can be a contentious topic. I’ve had some project management professionals take exception to my ideas. But, I maintain that innovation projects require a significant shift in strategy. And, I know that the strategies outlined above have been beneficial in my projects over the last 20 years.

Managing an Innovation Project Part 1: Entering the “Innovation Space”
Managing an Innovation Project Part II: Limiting Scope Creep and Managing Risk