Project Management Institute

Are You Allowing Your Teams to Innovate?

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Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

25 August 2020

The latest Pulse of the Profession® research suggests we can do more to drive innovation in our organizations. Here are major take-aways from the survey and what it means for project management professionals.

I like to think that project managers know the value of innovation. After all, they are the ones who are tasked with turning innovative ideas into reality.  

But as leaders, it is incumbent on all of us to take a step back and ensure that the ideas in our pipelines are truly innovative—and that we’re being as innovative as we can be in how we approach our work.  

I received a good reminder of this imperative from PMI’s latest Pulse of the Profession® in-depth study focused on innovation. The Innovation Imperative: The New Must-have Mindset for Project Leaders highlights some interesting dichotomies in our attitudes and actions around innovation. The findings are especially relevant in our time of enormous disruption caused by the global pandemic. Innovation will be the catalyst for how we will restart our economies and reinvent our organizations post-Covid-19.   

On the “good news” front, Pulse research indicates that a solid majority of companies see the value of game-changing ideas delivered through projects and are already benefiting from these ideas. Seventy-four percent of project professionals say their organizations have sponsored or invested in innovative ideas brought forward by teams of individuals. Hackathons can spur this innovation through competition, while also involving more team members in the innovation process. For example, while at Australian telecom Telstra, Rizwan Khan, PMP, program manager of technology and innovation at Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates ran a large-scale hackathon that produced several promising ideas that the company ultimately pursued.  

Further, Pulse research found 80 percent of the organizations that encourage project leaders to expand their role to deliver greater value have invested in at least one innovative idea in the past five years—compared to just 54 percent of organizations that don’t encourage their project leaders to focus on value.  

Companies are also striving to foster cultures where innovation can thrive. A full 87 percent of project professionals say that their organizations promote a learning and growth mindset. And 44 percent have placed a major focus on the development of strategic innovation skills to support project professionals—that’s second only to people skills.  

Where organizations seem less engaged is in promoting practical, tangible actions that drive innovation. In fact, more than half of project leaders rate their organizations as below average when it comes to facilitating innovation and motivating project professionals to pursue new ideas.  

Only one in four organizations, for example, have required teams to dedicate time for innovative thinking or ideation over the past five years. Just one in five has hosted a creativity lab or hackathon. And only 21 percent of project professionals are familiar with citizen development—an often untapped source of innovation.

Organizations also are less likely to adjust their priorities based on market trends. Although roughly half have shifted course over the past five years due to changes in the competitive landscape or customer perceptions of their products or services, only one in four organizations are investing in new opportunities based on early marketplace signals.  

Organizations still have a way to go to become true innovation hubs. While important, organizations that just focus on skill development and fostering an innovative culture will miss the mark. These attributes need to be complemented by programs and actions that directly drive innovation, and by a greater willingness to innovate to get out in front of emerging customer needs.  

There are important lessons here for all of us as project leaders. We need to challenge ourselves to embrace innovation not just in theory but in practice—to provide our teams with the tools, as well as the license, to be truly innovative.  

In the end, however, I believe the Pulse research paints an optimistic picture about our commitment to innovation. Indeed, three out of four project leaders say their organizations will invest more to promote project management innovation over the next 10 years.  

Where might that investment be directed? Here are three recommendations: 

  • Hire people willing to learn: Innovation thrives in an environment where people are open to new ideas. Investing in team members who are committed to life-long learning and who are willing to learn and adapt will help teams stay ahead of the competition.
  • Make data-driven decisions: True innovation is customer driven. Drawing on user data to inform project decisions helps teams avoid making choices based on faulty assumptions or emotions. 
  • Build the Infrastructure: Organizations must commit to building a culture that encourages innovation every step of the way. But they also need to provide team members with the practical training and tools to make innovation a reality. 

Becoming a truly innovative organization is a project in and of itself. As leaders, we should embrace this challenge and apply all our skills to making innovative teams a reality in our organizations.