Improving outcomes on experimental projects
In exploratory, experimental, or high risk projects, success is uncertain or will be difficult to achieve. This type of work requires management methods that encourage discovery, tolerate failure, and nurture creativity.
Despite a rich opportunity for failure, comparatively little guidance exists about improving experimental projects’ chance of success, beyond perhaps tribal knowledge. This paper makes this knowledge explicit. It discusses changes required in traditional project planning, how to leash the unique beasts these projects are, methods for encouraging creativity, the importance of a dynamic environment, helpful tools, establishing the right environment, and the unique needs and incentives required to keep creative and highly skilled people happy and productive.
The author not only draws from his own experience in managing and participating in numerous small innovative research projects and evolutionary software projects, but he also has conducted extensive research into how innovation occurs within teams at NASA, DARPA, Microsoft, and leading design firms. Additional information related to risk management, team dynamics, and other areas also are included where appropriate.
An experimental or R&D project has goals that blaze new territory and are difficult to achieve. I frequently must manage these types of projects and so have sought to improve my approach toward them.
This article is a journey through the experience of many different high-performing teams. It is based on a survey of several excellent repositories of project management experience, the stories of several highly innovative enterprises, and also the practices of veritable “invention factories” that manage to produce inspired results on a daily basis. Added to this are contributions from several practical schools of thought.
The truly critical input to an experimental project is its people. Outcomes depend on a combination of creativity and discovery, facilitated by excellent communication within a supportive environment. Project plans and management must be focused on enabling, not retarding, the performance of the team.
Experimental projects succeed to the extent that they accelerate evolution in the understanding of a problem. The key to this is enhancing the discovery and learning process. Again and again, we see teams that are not afraid to learn by doing, using throwaway “paper tigers” or seedling prototypes. Given the chance, teams are diversely peopled so that different perspectives are brought to bear on a problem, or teams compete against each other, eventually sharing what they've learned.
Sometimes overlooked is that the customer's needs, the very basis for a project, also may be subject to a discovery process. The customer's true needs may become clearer as project-driven learning occurs. A team should plan on periodically revisiting originally stated requirements, which if revised could dramatically affect what needs to get done.
Discovery of the customer's solution sometimes occurs by trial and error, and other times by creative inspiration. It helps to remember that creativity itself comes in several flavors. The sexiest form is the creative spark, Einstein's “walk in the woods,” but it is not necessarily the most commonly required. Adaptation of ideas and technology into new uses is the workhorse of creativity. The magic bullet, however, is avoidance—the search for and substitution with preconceived solutions whenever possible.
Creative sparks are often least common and yet require special nurturing. Techniques such as SCAMPER exist for getting people to think more creatively but are probably of limited use. Other than attracting creative people to your team, management's best contribution is to promote and leverage human capital. Capital-building exercises include sponsoring personal projects, ongoing training, and publishing of work. It also may be possible to push people and teams into alternate perspectives through cross-training and buddies, lectures, and deliberate mismatches of skills to teams. An entirely different form of human capital leverage, and often most the cost-effective, is access to good tools, particularly software tools enhancing visualization, conceptualization, and experimentation. Hardware development has often been observed within environments resembling creative funhouses, and this is no accident, for what better excites the mind than toys?
Effective communication transforms creativity into a group process. It can be furthered through a variety of tools, but take care to distinguish between those intended for information sharing and those for collaboration. Online portals, wikis, and project displays are for sharing, email and chat are for either, but true collaboration is again and again achieved through one primary means, face-to-face communication.
Sharing between team members can be encouraged through frequent informal meetings enabled by physically clustering the team and, if that is not possible, by regular events bringing people together. Take care, however, that these gatherings are highly collaborative, rather than “meetings” where participants listen more than participate. The manager should meanwhile constantly work to keep people in touch. Successful managers not only maintain an open-door policy, they regularly walk the shop floor, encouraging and maintaining communication. A manager's number one customer is the team itself.
Walk into a healthy experimental environment and you will see that it is often dynamic. The key is to operate on the dynamic edge, where risks are taken and learning is enhanced, but not far enough into the dynamic realm that disorder takes over and begins to retard results. Dynamic environments often are characterized by small teams extensively communicating and mixing, but they also have plentiful opportunities for immersion within personalized spaces. These are places where extraneous concerns are stripped away and the team is free to focus on their mission. They have a sense of playfulness and even humor about them. Rather than optimizing and attempting to achieve perfection, the atmosphere is empirical, with team members constantly experimenting and adapting to results.
A dynamic environment is nonetheless managed, particularly in terms of its knowledge generation. An ideal knowledge management process helps minimize mental clutter for the team, while enabling easy recall and tracking of previously generated ideas and findings. An advanced management process also permits multiple perspectives on generated information. In that regard, there are differing schools of thought on systems using metadata—the tagging on of identifying information—versus those relying strictly on content, for instance made accessible to textual search tools. Regardless of what process is implemented, the manager often ends up as the teams’ project secretary.
Who can best manage an experimental project? There certainly isn't one type of person who does best—both domineering leaders and sensitive types have succeeded. However, in reviewing profiles of successful leaders, various attributes keep emerging. Foremost on a tough slog is the will to persevere. For the sake of respect and morale, a manager must maintain his or her credibility and be exceedingly fair and ethical, relying on constant, confidential feedback to guarantee this. That in turn relies on approachability, another cornerstone of successful managers, who must constantly take the pulse of their project, sometimes as a muse, other times as a facilitator. Talented professionals want managers to simply clear their path, so they can get their work done.
Plans also must be adapted to the experimental aspects of a project. Increased discovery—and better tolerance for inevitable failures along the way—can occur within “excursions” added to the project and undertaken as conditions warrant, though preferably off the critical path. Needless to say, because by definition these projects are far down the learning curve, increased effort and duration margins also are crucial for path-critical activities. An experimental project's plan mustn't just tolerate greater uncertainty. It should, in a way, actually nurture it. It should be evolutionary in nature with ample opportunity for prototyping, and be constructed with enough flexibility to be partially reconstructed. Findings along the way can fundamentally affect what you can and cannot do; on an experimental project, plan on revising the plan!
While experimental projects require supportive “plans for discovery” they also are rife with risk. In designing the plan, consider enhanced analyses of interdependencies, perhaps formally through a technique such as the Design Structure Matrix (DSM) (http://www.dsmweb.org/) or relatively informally by involving the team in a simulated pre-play of the plan. Mitigation of these risks requires both active measures and also a range of assessment techniques.
A key active risk mitigation measure is deadlines. A project should seek out artificially imposed, uniquely productive, schedule constraints; nothing focuses minds quite like deadlines. To be credible they should nonetheless somehow be genuine, perhaps timed to coincide with customer reviews. Deadlines of another sort work for managers too—more reporting. Far from sending teams off to their labs for the duration of a project, an experimental project actually requires more exposure than a conventional one. Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.
Assessing progress on an experimental project can be difficult. Tasks can be amorphous, defying concrete statements of their completeness. In such instances, you have a right to be approximate. If percentages are needed, offer a range. You also can use “inch pebble” (Rothman, 1999) milestones that provide flexible detail wherever possible, perhaps giving more detail as tasks come into view. Or report a metric that is easier to come by, such as questions answered or risks resolved, within tasks that are difficult to quantify through other means.
Learning and discovery is the significant theme on experimental projects, implemented empirically, via prototyping, team competition, exhaustive research, and so forth. Experimental projects are ideally pursued within dynamic environments with highly fortified communication channels. Plans should permit this dynamic journey through iterations and excursions, supported by modified progress metrics, while management's job is to enable the talents of the team, much more than to direct.
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© 2008, Lee Fischman
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, CO
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