Project Management Institute

Making sparks fly

innovation isn't optional. So don't wait until the C-suite gets the message -- get started with these tips

By Andrew Robinson, PMP

To keep pace with change and avoid obsolescence, many organizations are working to create an internal culture of innovation. Even companies long insulated from the need to innovate—electric utilities reliant on coal-fired power plants, for example—are feeling the pressure to innovate as new and cheaper sources of energy emerge and “smart grid” and battery technologies mature. Executives now face an environment of “unprecedented uncertainty,” as University of Pennsylvania professor Jeff Dyer, PhD, has said.

My point: We all need to become skilled at innovation. The good news is that, contrary to popular stereotype, innovation isn't about creative people dreaming up new ways of doing things. Two books I strongly recommend quickly dispense with this idea: Making Innovation Work, by Marc J. Epstein, PhD, Robert D. Shelton and Tony Davila, PhD, and The Innovator's Method, by Dr. Dyer and Nathan Furr. They're rich in details about how to create a culture of innovation. They cite companies and their processes for consistently and successfully driving innovation. (Yes, “process” is not a dirty word when it comes to innovation.)

So where to start? Ask yourself two questions: Does your organization consistently get innovative ideas out of its employees and clients? And does it understand and employ a method of innovation?

Of course, building a culture of innovation isn't easy—it sometimes takes years for an organization to accept the necessity for change. Sometimes a crisis must first occur, or a shift in leadership. But project managers needn't wait for these big changes—they can leverage the concept of innovation within their own projects to begin their professional and personal innovation journey.

Here are a few ways to take the first steps on this journey:

  • Understand the power of design thinking. Start by reading anything by Clayton Christensen, as well as the two books referenced above.
  • Start small. Focus on a problem worth solving within your purview, and engage your team to address this problem using an innovation method. Keep a low profile until you are skilled and successful.
  • Measure the impact of your innovations to make them easier to defend. Substantiate innovation concepts with quantitative measures—such as ROI or market share.


Throughout the journey, assess and make course corrections as required—plan, do, check, act. Your organization is unique—you can't just replicate how innovation works at Google or Amazon.

There may be bumps in the road, but the payoff is clear: When you engage your team members and clients to develop and implement innovations, you'll likely see increases in morale and client satisfaction. Enabling innovation is immensely satisfying—and these days, it's becoming mandatory. PM

img Andy Robinson, PMP, is COO of Robbins Gioia in Alexandria, Virginia, USA. He has worked in management consulting for over 25 years and can be reached at
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