Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Innovation - Project or Program

In most businesses, when the management team gets interested in a new methodology, concept or approach, they'll ask for someone to head up a project to explore the possibilities of the new thinking. In this way the team can investigate a new method or approach without a lot of fanfare, and the management team can quickly end a project that does not seem to add value.

Today, a lot of firms express interest in innovation as a new direction, but are unsure of the investment and amount of change necessary to become more innovative. It's understandable that the management team wants to see some validity to the approach and some small successes before creating a significant investment and implementing broad change. However, project based innovation is exceptionally difficult to do well.

Most projects have a logical start and end, and follow well understood plans. Projects are staffed by pulling people together on a part-time basis and providing only the bare minimum funding, resources and time to experiment with a new approach. At the first sign of trouble or pushback, the team will report its difficulties and in many cases the project will be shut down. In other cases, something more important will come along and the members of the team associated with the project will be pulled off to address the more important issue.

It is difficult to treat innovation as a project, for all of these reasons and many more. Yes, you can turn on and turn off idea generation, so you can treat brainstorming or ideation as an occasional effort, but people tire of this approach quickly if the ideas they generate are never evaluated or used downstream. To create really innovative ideas, people need freedom, space and time to generate, manage, compare and evaluate ideas. In a project setting, there is simply too much pressure to get something done quickly, and little commitment to the team or changing the way people work.

Innovation should be thought of as an open ended program, an initiative that has clearly defined benefits and actions but no defined end date. Innovation requires good communication to a broad audience so people understand what's happening and why it is happening, and will probably require change to the way people think and work. If the approach is limited and time-bound, little change to the work approach or culture is possible. Innovation also involves risk - if the management team is not willing to allow some risky ideas or ideas that take some time to develop, then it is not serious about innovation over the long run, but is seeking some "quick hits" to add to its product portfolio.

Innovation projects will rarely succeed, unless they are embedded in a program that ensures innovation becomes an expectation of the business. With that in mind, examine the involvement, funding and resources provided by the management team, and the amount of communication and cultural change they are prepared to create to understand if your innovation task is a project, or a program.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:37 AM


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