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Success with innovative projects

by Matthew Leitch, 15 February 2006



How innovative?
What to expect
Who will succeed?
Useful techniques
How to sabotage innovative projects
Finally

How innovative?

Projects that involve doing something that has never been done before, as far as you know, and will involve some invention and discovery along the way, present special problems. The more innovative the project the more easily it will shrug off attempts to impose normal project management disciplines. These projects are not to everyone's taste, which is just as well because if all projects in an organization were like this then chaos would soon result. These are not the projects any organization should have in large number, or make large investments in. These are the projects that often go wrong, that often end up somewhere unexpected, that create confusion and stress far beyond their (usually) small size, and yet that an organization needs to do from time to time to avoid falling behind. In short, you need them but volunteers may be in short supply.

I've just described my favourite projects, but I know not everyone shares my tastes. This article looks at the special characteristics of innovative projects and how to make them successful. Just applying normal project management disciplines, but more strictly because these projects seem so hard to control, will do more harm than good.

The ideas in this article are particularly appropriate to projects doing original things in internal control and risk management.

What to expect

Even when well managed, projects with lots of innovation usually involve:

Who will succeed?

Before we look at the techniques and attitudes that promote success in innovative projects, here are some thoughts on the ideal people to include in the team. These projects call for powerful thinkers rather than diligent organisers. If the team doesn't have the right kind of intellectual horsepower to succeed then no amount of resource management is going to make a difference. What should we look for?

The ideal player is:

Useful techniques

Here are techniques and tactics that are useful in highly innovative projects:

How to sabotage innovative projects

If your ambition is to make sure an innovative project is a failure then here is what you should do. The following techniques are so easy that even people who want successful projects occasionally do them, not realising the damage they do:

First, insist on consensus as to exactly what the project will deliver, when, and with what resources. Do not under any circumstances accept any uncertainty in this and do not allow any work to proceed until firm commitment and unanimous agreement have been achieved. Once you have agreement make it as hard as possible to change anything and frown on opportunism. In the unlikely event that this fails to kill the project develop a formal project plan with large phases of work that make sure nothing is actually delivered until the very end. Set out the project with logical sounding headings like "analysis" and "solutions development". Anything will do as long as it doesn't involve trying something out in practice.

If, like a hardy weed that survives weed-killer, the project struggles on then your problem might be that someone in the team is a strong innovator. If that is the case you must do everything you can to drive them away or prevent them from contributing. Clearly it is time to set up some brainstorming meetings. Flipcharts, sticky notes, breaking into groups, feeding back "conclusions" - you know the kind of thing. Make sure nobody has time to think their ideas through properly and that anybody who does have well thought through proposals sees them put onto the flip chart along with the dross, mixed and mangled into useless oblivion. People with few good ideas will sit through this, go through the motions, and wait for an easier session. People with lots of good ideas will be demoralised and frustrated.

If, despite all your precautions, someone actually does come up with a promising idea do not worry. They are playing into your hands. Simply welcome the idea, praise it, and focus all resources and thinking on it and it alone. Sooner or later the idea will hit problems and when it does that narrow focus will mean it is stuck. Tackling the problem from several directions at once, or searching for even easier ways in, would give a much better chance of success so make sure people don't get up to those tricks.

The key to effective sabotage is to present what you are doing as sensible, good management. Make it sound "logical." Stay calm, take notes, say supportive things, and you can be sure of getting away with it.

Finally

Looking back at the many innovative projects I've been in over the last twenty years only a handful have been managed appropriately to succeed. That hasn't stopped them being useful, but so often it could all have been much easier, quicker, and cheaper. The tactics described above can all contribute to the success of your innovative projects.



© 2006 Matthew Leitch
New website, new perspective: www.WorkingInUncertainty.co.uk - Related articles - All articles - The author - Services

If you found any of these points relevant to you or your organisation please feel free to contact me to talk about them, pass links or extracts on to colleagues, or just let me know what you think. I can sometimes respond immediately, but usually respond within a few days. Contact details

Matthew Leitch - Author

About the author: Matthew Leitch is a tutor, researcher, author, and independent consultant who helps people to a better understanding and use of integral management of risk within core management activities, such as planning and design. He is also the author of the new website, www.WorkingInUncertainty.co.uk, and has written two breakthrough books. Intelligent internal control and risk management is a powerful and original approach including 60 controls that most organizations should use more. A pocket guide to risk mathematics: Key concepts every auditor should know is the first to provide a strong conceptual understanding of mathematics to auditors who are not mathematicians, without the need to wade through mathematical symbols. Matthew is a Chartered Accountant with a degree in psychology whose past career includes software development, marketing, auditing, accounting, and consulting. He spent 7 years as a controls specialist with PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he pioneered new methods for designing internal control systems for large scale business and financial processes, through projects for internationally known clients. Today he is well known as an expert in uncertainty and how to deal with it, and an increasingly sought after tutor (i.e. one-to-one teacher). more

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