In a very real sense, every project undertaken is undertaken for the first time. A project team may not be the first to build an aircraft carrier, but they are the first to build that aircraft carrier—which must be built using this team, in that location, with those suppliers, this design, and those constraints. Project management is all about breaking new ground—doing things that have never been done before. This places innovation right at the heart of what we do as project managers. In fact, innovation has become a core competency, essential to success in a rapidly shifting strategic environment. So why is it that so few project managers consider innovation to be a strength?
This paper will explore this question in detail, with particular focus on three key obstacles: (1) Resistance to risk, (2) Misconceptions regarding how best to facilitate innovation in a team setting, and (3) Lack of time to devote to innovation in the face of competing tactical priorities. Each section will conclude with practical tools (supported by research) that can be used “back at the office” to promote team innovation.
The Role of Innovation in Project Management
Innovation, as a management competency, is difficult to define. In a business sense, the term “innovation” usually refers to the translation of an idea into a commercially viable product—perpetuating the idea that only the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and other visionaries can attain the rank of Innovator. On the other hand, the dictionary definition (“to do something in a new way”) is far too broad to be useful—after all, many a “creative” idea has failed to produce real value.
Consider the mechanical bread slicer. Given the ubiquity of the phrase, “the best thing since sliced bread,” it may surprise some to learn that sliced bread had an inauspicious beginning. Invented in the early 1920s by Iowa man Otto Rohwedder, the mechanical bread slicer was widely panned by early adopters as impractical and unwieldy. Customers in stores felt that pre-sliced bread was “sloppy looking,” owing to the fact that once the bread was sliced, it was difficult to hold the bread together long enough to neatly package. Bakers tried everything from rubber bands to metal pins to display their sliced bread—nothing seemed to attract consumers. The problem remained until St. Louis baker Gustav Papendick set out to improve the device, finally settling on a cardboard tray that would hold the bread together long enough for mechanized wrapping machines to function (Voorhees, 2004).
The mechanical bread slicer, on its own, was not an innovation. It was creative, certainly, but it failed to deliver real value to the customer. Likewise, the rubber bands and pins were not an innovation—they were incremental improvements that added value but did not constitute breakthrough thinking. It was not until Papendick combined the bread slicer (a creative idea) with the cardboard tray (a breakthrough improvement) that real value was added. Using this as our guide, this paper will define innovation as generating and implementing ideas that add value to the organization.
The first part of the definition—generating and implementing ideas—distinguishes innovation from mere improvement. Continuous improvement adds value, but does not always entail generating new ideas. There are many reasons—both internal and external—why a department or company might improve regardless of the presence or absence of creative thinking. The second part of the definition—generating and implementing ideas, which add value—distinguishes innovation from mere creativity. While project managers may need to rely on creative thinking to innovate, it is just as likely that they will need to draw upon data and logic. Everyday innovation occurs at the intersection of creativity and improvement.
The Innovative Project Manager
Traditional project management models have focused almost exclusively on delivery of products and services—defined deliverables with clear and measurable execution criteria. In this context, opportunities for innovation generally center on problem solving. For example, when facing a risk that must be avoided or mitigated, a project manager must often generate ideas, which add value (innovate) in order determine an appropriate risk response and contingency plan.
Newer project management models, in contrast, focus primarily on the achievement of a result. Scope, schedule, and cost are important, but subservient to the “big picture” results the organization is trying to achieve. For example, a project manager may be asked to manage an initiative to improve customer retention by 10% in eighteen months. In this model, the project manager is part tactician—responsible for executing the scope of work (once decided) in the time frame given—and part strategist, responsible for:
Interpreting the business strategy
Assessing feasibility of the objective
Analyzing the cause of the problem
Recommending and/or innovating a solution
Formulating a scope of work
Progressively elaborating the scope of work
Executing the project, monitoring performance along Triple Constraint
Ensuring the strategic objectives are met
In this model, innovation becomes is more central to the project manager's work. The project manager must actively seek ideas that add value throughout the project life cycle to ensure that the result is achieved.
Regardless of the model in which one operates, innovation has become a core competency for project managers. Unfortunately, several critical obstacles stand in the way of project managers developing this skill. Chiefly:
- Risk. Many project managers operate in risk-averse organizations, where best practice is valued above new ideas.
- Lack of knowledge. The tools needed to innovate effectively are not widely known or understood—and in fact, are actively misunderstood—by many organizations.
- Lack of time. The tactical demands on a project manager's time (“fighting fires”) leave little room for innovation and root cause solutions.
Innovating in a Risk-Averse Organization
In the context of innovation, “risk” is the possibility—real or perceived—of a negative outcome. Ultimately, an organization's attitudes toward risk will heavily influence a project manager's ability to drive innovation forward. In risk-averse organizations, compliance with best practice is usually preferred above innovation and experimentation. Nevertheless, a certain degree of innovation is needed to keep pace in a competitive environment. Project managers operating in this type of organization may benefit from “piloting” ideas and improvements in a controlled environment before recommending wider implementation.
For example, an idea may be tested first on a small internal project, and then piloted within a group of tactical projects, before finally being tested on a larger effort. This approach carries far less risk than a “fail fast, fail often” innovation strategy, which is more easily adopted in risk-seeking organizations. Whatever the project environment, abandoning innovation all together is nearly always counterproductive.
Like any other skill, the ability to innovate takes time and practice. When innovation is side-lined due to an aversion to risk, the competency cannot be developed. When the competency is not developed, companies struggle to stay competitive and adaptable.
Understanding Innovation: The Truth About Brainstorming
In the late 1940s, Alex Osborn—a partner in one of the most successful ad agencies of the time—published a book that promised to help people everywhere tap into their “creative power.” The book aimed to take his decades of experience in a creative field and distill it into simple strategies that any person could follow to be more creative at work. The most popular of these techniques, of course, was the “Brainstorming Session,” now a hallmark of the knowledge worker economy (Lehrer, 2012).
The “rules” of brainstorming were simple. The first was to come up with as many ideas as possible. Quantity trumped quality. The second rule was to avoid criticism of ideas. Osborn believed that for the creative side of the brain to work properly, analytical brain activity must be temporarily suspended. In his words: “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud” (Lehrer).
Brainstorming was a near-instantaneous hit in corporate America—the perfect marriage of creativity and efficiency. In just one hour, a team could generate a staggering quantity of ideas. There was just one problem: nearly all subsequent research has suggested that brainstorming doesn't work. Individuals thinking alone are consistently able to outperform brainstorming groups on measures of both quantity and quality.
Taylor, Berry, and Block were the first to test Osborn's technique in a lab. Their work, published in 1958, has been replicated hundreds of times in the past five decades. The researchers wanted to know if groups really were more creative than individuals. They took forty random participants and divided them into ten teams of four. All teams were tasked with generating ideas in response to a prompt. Five of the teams were asked to work together to generate ideas to solve a problem, using Osborn's technique. The other five teams were asked to come up with ideas individually, but their ideas were added together with their teammates as if they had brainstormed together. The results were clear—the teams that worked alone came up with twice as many ideas as the brainstorming groups, and the quality was better too (Holt, 2011).
There are two primary reasons that brainstorming—as originally conceived by Osborn—is rarely as effective as individual thinking.
The first is purely logistical. In a brainstorming session, only one participant is speaking at a time. The other participants are either listening to the speaker or attempting to generate ideas while distracted. This phenomenon is called “production blocking.” Production blocking is further exacerbated when the group includes a strong personality. In this case, the dominant speaker may be actively suppressing alternative points of view—further reducing creative output. In contrast, a group of five individuals is able to generate ideas in parallel with one another—without distraction—for the entire duration of time (Diehl & Strobe, 1987).
The second reason is neurological. Osborn's technique was based on the (now defunct) idea that the brain is functionally divided into the “creative” right hemisphere and the “logical” left hemisphere. Osborn believed that to maximize right-brain potential, the left-brain had to be actively restrained or suppressed. Today, neuroscientists understand that the hemisphere interactions are infinitely more complex than previously believed.
Daniel Kahneman, a leading researcher in this field, proposes that the brain is divided into two distinct systems—System 1 (“the Fast Brain”) and System 2 (“the Slow Brain.) The Fast Brain is automatic, emotional, stereotypic, and largely subconscious. It is the active system when you drive to an intersection with a broken stoplight. A person does not have a lot of time to think the situation through, so their Fast Brain quickly makes sense of the problem and helps them navigate the situation. The Fast Brain is highly efficient, but it does have some limitations. First, it reacts to ideas emotionally rather than logically. Second, it reaches for obvious answers—new and imaginative solutions are not the forte of the Fast Brain. (Holt)
On the other hand, the Slow Brain engages whenever your Fast Brain fails to solve a problem by obvious means. It is capable of complex analysis, imagination, and critical thinking. It is the system that must be engaged to generate a truly original idea. Unfortunately, the Slow Brain requires a great deal of time to “power up” and “power down,” and takes a tremendous amount of energy to sustain. For your Slow Brain to work properly, it must have ample time to engage and the freedom to challenge the status quo.
Brainstorming dogma—“there's no such thing as a bad idea”—is a Slow Brain blocker. Debate keeps us engaged in the task at hand. When all ideas are equally useful, there is no incentive to think seriously about another person's thought. In fact, research suggests that people who are allowed to debate ideas generate nearly 25% more of them. In the words of one researcher, “It doesn't matter if you're trying to invent a new brand name or decipher a hard insight puzzle. Beginning a group session with a moment of dissent—even when the dissent is wrong—can dramatically expand creative potential” (Nemeth, Personnaz, Personnaz, & Goncalo, 2004).
Back at the Office: Brainstorming 2.0
So what can project managers do to encourage innovation on project teams? Surely, the moral of the story is not that brainstorming should be completely abandoned? Certainly not. Brainstorming can be a valuable tool for group collaboration and innovation, so long as a few additional guidelines are followed:
Give the brain time to think alone.
To make the most of a brainstorming session, the brain first needs time to think alone. One way to accomplish this is to provide pre-work for participants prior to the session. A pre-work assignment should first describe the problem that needs to be solved, as simply as possible. It should also identify any non-negotiable constraints. Upon receipt of these guidelines, participants should be given time (either during or prior to the session) to provide answers the following: 1) What are two things you believe the group should know before solving this problem? 2) What are your best two ideas for solving this problem? This allows participants to engage with the problem ahead of time and reduces the “blank stare” phenomenon that haunts even the most skilled brainstorming facilitator.
Try come-and-go brainstorming.
Come-and-go brainstorming is a hybrid of individual ideation and group brainstorming. It allows participants the opportunity to informally contribute thoughts, insights, and ideas over a period of time. This technique can be employed using a physical whiteboard in a public space, or a virtual tool. Come-and-go brainstorming is a way that the power of the individual can be balanced with the creative energy of a team. When time is on your side, this tool can be of great value.
Encourage discussion and dissent.
No matter the format, a good brainstorming session will welcome dissenting opinions and discussion. This means that the standard one-hour meeting duration is usually not sufficient for a productive brainstorming session. The facilitator should help set a tone of constructive exploration of ideas, allowing for both depth and breadth of discussion.
Brainwriting is an alternative method to traditional brainstorming that encourages a more uniform participation within a group. It is one of the only methods that is effective at combating production blocking within a team. It is designed to generate a volume of ideas from the entire group (not just the two most dominant personalities in the room) in a brief amount of time. This is a useful technique for capturing new ideas, adapting existing ideas into new areas, and modifying ideas into alternative approaches.
There are multiple ways of conducting a brain writing session:
The 6-3-5 Method
- (6-3-5 means six in a group/three ideas per round/five minutes per round)
- Divide everyone into groups of about six. Too many in a group is unmanageable, too few restricts the generation of ideas.
- Each participant starts with a prewritten brainwriting form. The problem to be addressed is written at the top of the form.
- In the first round, participants have five minutes to write three ideas in the top boxes (one per box) of the brainwriting form. Often the problem is known ahead of time and the participants come in with the three ideas already developed. If this is the case, this initial time can be shorter.
- At the end of each round, the form is passed to the person on the right. As each person gets a form from the person on the left, they read all the ideas on the sheet and then add three new ones. The new ideas can be completely new or can be variations of ideas already on the sheet. Ideas from other participants should foster new ideas. There is no talking or discussion during these rounds.
- The process is completed when each participant gets his own form back, now filled up with the ideas of the group.
- The last step is to sort the ideas using a clustering method (described below).
The Pool Method
- Divide everyone into groups of 10 or fewer.
- Each participant gets a form with the problem statement written at the top.
- Each person writes three ideas at top and puts the sheet in the center of the table.
- Participants take a new sheet out of the center pile and add ideas to it.
- In this method, there are no formal rounds. Put the sheets back and get new sheets at own pace.
- Process completed at end of pre-determined time (e.g., 30 minutes).
- The last step is to sort the ideas using a clustering method (described below).
The Pin Card Method
- Divide everyone into groups of five to eight.
- Each participant gets a stack of index cards or index card-size sticky notes. The problem statement is written visibly on a board.
- Each person writes one idea on a card and places it on his right side.
- When a participant runs out of ideas, they pick a card from the pile on their left and try to add to it. If they can add to the idea, they write it on a new card, attach the two cards together, and move both cards to the pile on the right.
- If they can't do anything with that card, they move it to the pile on the right and retrieve another card from their left.
- A moderator keeps the cards circulating.
- The process is complete at end of pre-determined time (e.g., 30 minutes).
- The last step is to sort the ideas using a clustering method (described below).
The Clustering Technique
- Immediately after the brainwriting session, copy all ideas to sticky notes.
- Participants, either as a group or individually, should begin arranging ideas into related “clusters.” This is simply a sorting process; there is generally no discussion of which ideas are better or worse.
- The group agrees on a label to put on each cluster.
- If an idea can fit into two or more clusters, duplicates may be made.
- Clusters can stand individually if the goal is just to get a bunch of ideas. If some consensus must be reached, discussion can begin about which clusters to merge or eliminate (What Is “Brainwriting?”).
After the Brainwriting Session
Whichever technique is employed, once the ideas are sorted, the group under the guidance of a facilitator who can ensure the conversation stays constructive and on point should thoughtfully discuss them. If desired, the group can choose to engage in critical discussion during the sorting/clustering process.
Making Time for Innovation
The research is clear: the brain needs time to innovate. Unfortunately, time is a project manager's most precious commodity—and it's usually in short supply. Research conducted by New York-based research firm Basex Inc. found that nearly 28% of an office worker's time is spent being interrupted—costing the United States an estimated US$900 billion annually (Van Loon, 2013). This number could well be even higher among project managers, who spend up to 90% of their time communicating with others (Phillips). These interruptions become even more concerning when one considers how long it takes the average worker to return to serious mental tasks after an interruption. In a study released in 2007, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to resume writing reports or computer code after responding to an incoming email or instant message (Lohr, 2007). With all of these distractions, it may seem next to impossible to carve out time for innovation and strategic thinking—but new research suggests it is possible. We must start by critically examining the most substantial obstacle to productivity known to date—our own brains.
The Brain: Our Time Management “Frenemy”
When it comes to time management, the brain is both our greatest asset and worst liability. Humans are the only species known to be capable of executive functioning—making decisions and strategic trade-offs in time management. While it is a myth that humans only utilize 10% of their brain capacity at any given time, the brain must still be regularly exercised to operate at optimal levels. Otherwise, the difficult but important work of the Slow Brain is overtaken by the Fast Brain's conditioned response ephemera like telephone calls, emails, and minor crises. Let's examine a few of the ways that the brain works against productivity.
Three men serving time in an Israeli prison appear before a parole board. The three prisoners have completed most of their sentence, but the parole board grants freedom to only one of them. Can you guess which one?
- Case 1 (heard at 8:00 a.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 36-month sentence for fraud
- Case 2 (heard at 2:30 p.m.): A Jewish Israeli serving a 12-month sentence for theft
- Case 3 (heard at 4:40 p.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 32-month sentence for fraud
Researchers analyzing more than 1,100 such cases over the course of a year discovered a troubling pattern to these decisions—and it wasn't related to the prisoners’ crimes or sentences. On average, judges approved parole in about a third of the cases—but the probability of being paroled early in the morning or directly after a break was nearly seven times greater than late in the day or just prior to a break. (Danziger, 2010). This phenomenon is known as “decision fatigue,” and it negatively affects the judgment of just about everyone regardless of occupation or demographic (Tierney, 2011, para. 1–4).
In essence, the more decisions you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for the Slow Brain to process. Eventually, the Fast Brain takes over to conserve energy. In its quest for shortcuts, the Fast Brain either becomes reckless (acting impulsively instead of expending the energy to think through the consequences) or ducks a decision all together (Tierney, 2011, para. 5).
In the course of a day, project managers make thousands of decisions. Should I read check this email? How should I respond to this request? What should I work on next? As the brain depletes, we become more susceptible to impulsive decisions. We may abandon a difficult but important task to attend to an easier one. We may stop to chat with a co-worker rather than tackle a looming deadline. In some people, mental fatigue manifests itself as a crippling inability to do anything at all.
Affective forecasting refers to people's general inability to predict or envision how they will feel about something in the future (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003, pp. 345–347). It is the reason that many people do not prioritize saving for retirement, writing a will, or exercising. It is also the reason that many people struggle so powerfully with procrastination. When faced with a difficult task, we know that we do not want to do it today—but we imagine (incorrectly) that we will feel better about it tomorrow. On a related note, affective forecasting also impacts our ability to correctly predict how long a task will take to complete—particularly if it is a task or project that we've never undertaken before.
Many people assume that the mark of an expert time manager is the ability to multitask. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Researchers now understand that executive control (the brain's “CEO”) only really has the capacity to focus on one incoming stimuli at a time. What we consider multitasking (doing multiple tasks in parallel) is really “task switching,” or rapidly shifting from one area of focus to another. For most types of tasks, people lose time when must switch from one task to another—and this time loss increases with the complexity of the tasks. Time costs are greatest when people are forced to switch to tasks that are relatively unfamiliar, suggesting that rapid task switching is only possible when the Fast Brain is engaged (APA, 2001, para. 2–5).
Research suggests that executive control involves two distinct but complementary stages: goal shifting (“I want to do this now, instead of that”) and rule activation (“I am turning off the rules for this task, and turning on the rules for that task”). Both take quite a bit of time, and contribute to mental fatigue. Thus, while multitasking may seem more efficient, it actually takes a substantial toll on productivity (APA, 2001, para. 6).
Back at the Office: Time Management 2.0
Decision fatigue, affective forecasting, and multitasking are continually working against our day. Any attempt to improve our time use must begin by addressing these powerful obstacles. To summarize, an effective time management approach will:
- Use the first hour of the day to plan the day's priorities and make important decisions, before mental fatigue has the opportunity to set in.
- Employ techniques to accurately predict and plan for the duration of a task.
- Purposefully incorporate breaks to reset the clock on decision fatigue.
- Incorporate tools for minimizing distractions so the brain can remain as single-threaded as possible.
- Balance “best practice” with the reality of a project manager's day—maintaining her ability to stay available to the team, accessible to stakeholders, and adaptable to the day's demands.
The following are some tools and techniques that can be taken alone—or in combination—to achieve the above objectives:
Plan Your Day Using the Five Boxes Technique
The Five Boxes technique (Gallagher, 2013) is a “visual to-do list” that helps to combat affective forecasting (by visualizing and forcing realistic priorities) and decision fatigue (by giving your brain a “default” to revert to when making decisions about what to work on next).
It is recommended that the Five Boxes technique be done on a physical sheet of paper; while it's possible to do this electronically, it is important that your priorities be always visible. In electronic format, it's easy for your Five Boxes to be hidden by other programs and windows. It is also important to do the Five Boxes early in the morning when your mind is fresh and at peak capacity for executive judgment.
To do the Five Boxes, draw five boxes on a sheet of paper. In the first box, you will write the day's most important priority. In the second box, you will write the day's second most important priority. In the third box, you will write the day's final priority. In the fourth box, you will note any non-negotiable constraints in the day (e.g., meetings, phone calls, deadlines). Finally, you will use the fifth box as a “data dump” for anything else (personal or professional) that needs to be completed. As the day goes on, you may add to this fifth box.
Your goal throughout the day is to focus as much of your discretionary time as possible on the first three boxes. You may tackle items in the fifth box on breaks if you wish, but less than 5% of your time should be spent completing items on this list.
This technique is a powerful planning tool that will give your brain a clear point of reference as your energy decreases and “crises” threaten to distract your focus. Although it is highly effective when employed daily, the Five Boxes can be adapted as a weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even annual planning exercise.
Utilize the Pomodoro Technique® for increased focus.
The Pomodoro Technique®, developed by Francisco Cirillo (no affiliation), is enormously effective for minimizing distractions, combating procrastination, and balancing focus with accessibility. What follows is an adapted version of this technique, which is easy to implement quickly with maximum benefit.
What Is a Pomodoro?
A Pomodoro is a 25-minute increment of time. It is small enough to maintain intense focus and large enough to achieve peak productivity and flow. When using the Pomodoro technique, the goal is to choose a task and focus exclusively on it for one Pomodoro, or 25 minutes. During this time, you are to minimize all distractions—this includes checking email, answering the phone, or switching to a different task.
After a Pomodoro is complete, take a five minute break. During the break, stand up and walk around. Get a snack. Talk to a co-worker. Follow up on emails if you wish. When the break is over, begin another Pomodoro. If you did not finish the task in the first Pomodoro, continue the same task in the second.
Every four to five Pomodoros, take a thirty-minute break. This is an excellent time to knock out tasks in Box Five, or follow up with co-workers who may have needed to discuss something with you while you were focused on the task at hand.
Although beneficial, it is not necessary to use the Pomodoro technique all the time. For project managers, substantial benefit can be achieved just by using the technique for a few hours at a time. In particular, the Pomodoro technique is useful when:
- You struggle with staying focused on a task.
- You would like to document how you spend time in order to improve.
- You need to hit a deadline on a task, but you aren't able to check out completely from your team.
- You feel yourself losing steam on a difficult task.
- You lose your sense of how long tasks take you to complete.
Utilizing this technique will help to enhance awareness of your time management decisions. The act of writing down the time we spend on an activity is a powerful motivator and an even more powerful tool of self-discovery. In addition, the Pomodoro technique establishes a rhythm to the day so that productivity can be sustained for long periods of time. Finally, the Pomodoro technique minimizes the impact of technology overload—a key contributor to mental fatigue (Richtel, 2010, para. 9–13).
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