Innovation, Project Management, and the fuseproject

As you know it takes a different skill set to be successful with innovation...a skill set that in most companies is not well understood or nurtured.

In my experience, most project manager's aren’t generally considered “innovative” by their peers. They work within the limits of the project initiated and have project related things to worry about. They may be perfectionist and handle people issues very well, and, at times, they can act as innovation catalysts. But innovative? This question nags at me everytime I see a truly innovative company and wonder if the project managers are different there then they are in other companies.

Take for instance a recent company that I came across called the fuseproject. Founded in 1999 by Yves Behar, fuseproject is an award-winning industrial design and branding firm with offices in San Francisco and New York.

Examples of fuseproject’s diverse projects include the world’s first $100 “XO” laptop for Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization, which aims to bring education and technology to the world’s poorest children. fuseproject is now working on the laptop’s successor, the “XOXO”. Other recent projects include a partnership with “Jawbone”, a leading edge mobile phone headset company; “LeCube”, a set top box for France’s premier digital TV brand Canal +; a recycling project for Coca Cola; a new identity and strategy for iGoogle’s home page; “MINI-Motion”, a new brand for BMW’s MINI Cooper; the LEAF light and other furniture projects for Herman Miller and the NYC Condom for the department of Health of the City of NY.

Now, when I look the fuseproject’s website, I see all these creative, smart people having a good time at work and I have to ask myself, do these people even know what a project manager looks like? Sure enough, all you have to do is look at their job postings and you can see from time to time that they do, in fact, employ project managers. Now it’s hard to tell what role this project manager is playing relative to other members of the cross functional team. But I can’t help but ask if a requirement for the position is to be “innovative”. So, can a project manager be innovative?

It has been my experience that a good project manager can indeed be “innovative”. They have the best overall view of an entire project, and as their teams are tasked to improve metrics (cost, timing, quality), the project manager is definitely an excellent starting point to look to for ways to improve the overall process driving those metrics.

Project managers can also be innovative if they are included in the idea generation / exploration stage of a project. I am a strong believer of project managers who collaborate with product managers right from the idea generation phase, all the way through to product launch.

Now, disruptive or breakthrough innovations may be difficult to achieve, but project managers can be instrumental in taking that idea and turning it into something that is actionable and acheivable. Providing the clarity on what makes each level of the project different empowers project manager to know where they can be the most innovative. New efficiencies found in modified timelines or improved processes around tracking deliverables should qualify as innovative thought and work, and be recognized as such to encourage further development in these fields

Simultaneous Engineering was born out of innovative Project Management. Cross-Functional Product Development Teams another. Innovation suggests risk and many of today's Project Managers, unfortunately, view risk as a career limiting factor. I think some of these innovative companies, like the fuseproject, are applying project management to the front-end of the lifecycle and turning them into a front-end of innovation manager. But to be a fully capable front-end manager they must understand the major differences between innovation and traditional project management:

  • Innovation requires divergent exercises and tasks were a number of new options are created. Tasked oriented project managers often fail miserably here because they are collapsing project time, not on improving quality.

  • Innovation requires creativity - the first solution is not always the correct one. Finding the best solution is the goal. But, project managers are taught to settle on workable solution not the best solution.

To be an effective, innovative project manager requies courage, leadership, and an entrapeneurial spirit. Good project managers lead, not block. The more I think about the original question, it really doesn’t become a question of can a project manager be innovative. But more of, why aren’t more project managers acting in an innovative way?

All I know is, if you desire to work at a company who is changing the game, innovativing, and creating new solutions in the market place, then project managers better step up their game and meet the challenge.

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