Managerial activities and challenges in the front-end phase of innovation process


Aalto University School of Science, Finland

Tua A. Björklund

Aalto University Design Factory, Finland


Front-end of innovation is characterized by uncertainty, unpredictability, and changing needs. These unique features of the front-end phase of innovative projects require the project manager to cope with multiple, often conflicting and fluctuating, contingencies and to balance between different approaches and behaviors. However, traditionally, project management research has focused largely on more conventional, stable, and defined projects. Furthermore, not much emphasis has been put on the actual practices and actions of project managers, i.e., what is it that project managers actually do to manage innovative projects on a daily basis? This study addresses this gap in our understanding by investigating managerial activities and challenges of New Product Development (NPD) project managers at the front-end phase of the innovation process. Data was collected from an 8 month graduate level product development course, during the 2010–2011 semester. For the study, 15 project managers were interviewed as the NPD projects had been running for approximately two months, i.e. when the projects were in the midst of the front-end phase. A total of 757 managerial activities and challenges were identified in the interview transcripts. The data analysis resulted in 19 mutually exclusive categories of managerial activities, which were further classified into five main classes: 1) general project management, 2) providing a suitable context for development work, 3) responsibility and ownership, 4) providing support within a team, and 5) establishing a climate of trust. The results show that project managers tend to utilize a more task-oriented than people-oriented managerial approach. In total, task-oriented managerial activities were reported approximately three times as much as people-oriented activities; the managers described altogether 401 task-oriented activities in comparison to only 139 people-oriented activities. A total of 156 task-oriented challenges and 61 people-oriented challenges were recognized. General project management was by far the most numerous class, including activities and challenges related to organizing work, keeping the project under control, and ensuring the progress of work. However, activities aiming to develop a suitable context for development work (such as encouraging exploration) and to utilize the diversity of the team (encouraging team member participation) were also highlighted. Interestingly, two categories, i.e. accommodating to diversity and time management, were overshadowed by the amount of challenges. In these, project managers had not performed many actions to target these problems, seemingly being at a loss on how to change the situation.

Keywords: front-end of innovation; managerial activities; managerial challenges; people-oriented; task-oriented


Defined as a process of turning opportunities into new ideas, which are turned into practice and disseminated (Tidd, Bessant & Keith, 2005), or “coming up with something new, implementing it and successfully introducing it into the marketplace” (Buijs, 2003), innovations include such activities as invention, design, manufacturing, marketing, distribution, and product support (Smith, 2006). The innovation process consists of “a set of different, parallel, competing and conflicting processes which all occur at the same time” (Buijs, 2007, p. 204), is characterized by uncertainty (Lenfle & Loch, 2010; Collyer & Warren, 2009), and changing needs (Kim & Wilemon, 2002; Koen, Ajamin, Burkart, Clamen, Davidson, D’Amore, Elkins, Herald, Incorvia, Johnson, Karol, Seibert, Slavejkov & Wagner, 2001; Collyer & Warren, 2009). Especially the first phase of the innovation process, the front-end phase, is marked by “fuzziness”, uncertainty, and unpredictability (Koen et al., 2001; Zhang & Doll, 2001; Zien & Buckler, 1997). The front-end phase can roughly be described as the period from idea generation to its approval for development or termination (Murphy & Kumar, 1997). Activities in the phase include opportunity identification, idea generation, idea screening and selection, concept development, concept testing, customer need assessment, technology verification, and business analysis (Poskela, 2009). Compared to conventional projects, uncertainty, and the possibility of failure are highlighted in the beginning of innovative projects; time and cost constraints are more intense; and team members are more difficult to coordinate, having different professional backgrounds. (Pons, 2008)

The responsibility for managing both the complex innovation process and the people in the team is usually in the hands of the project manager (Elkins & Keller, 2003), requiring her or him to cope with multiple, often conflicting and fluctuating, contingencies (Lewis, Welsh, Dehler, & Green, 2002), balancing between different approaches and behaviors (Amabile, Schatzel, Moneta & Kramer, 2004; McDonough III & Barczak, 1991; Valle & Avella, 2003). Yet traditionally project management research has focused largely on more stable and defined projects. Often innovative projects, such as new product development (NPD) projects, have been viewed as projects to be handled as any other, ignoring the unique features of such projects (Pons, 2008). However, many conventional project management approaches require relatively complete definitions of outcomes and scope, which may be difficult to apply for NPD projects, especially in the front-end phase. For example, it is impossible to utilize traditional project management and risk management techniques in innovative, exploratory projects (Lenfle, 2013). Indeed, the model provided in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Third Edition (PMI, 2004) has been noted to fit only in the most certain situations in which complete requirements are available at the beginning of the project (Shenhar & Dvir, 2007).

On the other hand, available process models of innovative and new product projects are limited in their ability to guide project managers in the fuzzy front-end phase. Although several models have been presented (see e.g. Cooper, 1993, 1997; Khurana & Rosenthal, 1998; Koen et al., 2001; Nobelius & Trygg, 2001; Otto & Wood, 2001; Ulrich & Eppinger, 2003), process models represent the ideal path from the formation of an idea to the manufacturing of a finished product, which in real life is less clearly differentiated and less linear (Tidd et al., 2005). For example, the widely applied Stage-Gate model (Cooper, 1997) creates stages in which milestones help the project team methodically track a project and formal reviews enable critical assessments that help in major decisions (e.g. continue/terminate project; resource allocation etc.) (Cooper, 1997). It has been argued that these process models reduce uncertainty and establish the basis for success of new products (e.g. Ernst, 2002; Cooper, 1997; Monaert, de Meyer, Sounder & Deschoolmester, 1995), but they have also been criticized for oversimplifying their approach (Hisplop, 2005) and for their tendency to apply the same models and activities regardless of the level of innovation (radical or incremental), as well as their contextual differences (Reinertsen, 1994; Nobelius & Trygg, 2002; Reid & de Brentani, 2004).

Finally, while several leadership behaviors have been suggested to support creative work —encouraging exploration (Mumford, Scott, Gaddis & Strange, 2002; Hohn, 2000), acting as a role model (Amabile 1997; Farson & Keyes, 2002), encouraging intellectual stimulation (Waldman & Bass, 1991) and providing autonomy (Amabile, Hadley, & Kramer, 2002), to name a few—most recent papers on the management of creativity and on leadership for creativity do not put much emphasis on the actual practices and actions of managers (Simon, 2006), placing an urgent need to study innovation management practices (Kastelle & Steen, 2011).

Considering the unique nature of the front-end phase of innovations and limited amount of project management research conducted in its context, as well as the general lack of emphasis on management practices, the present study proceeds to investigate project manager activities and concerns specifically in the front-end phase of product development efforts. After reviewing existing research on leadership and management support of creative work, the paper proceeds to present and discuss the activities and concerns reported by the project managers of 15 product development projects whilst in the front-end phase.

Literature Review

Immediate leaders, or project managers play a significant part in providing a work context where creative performance can be nourished (Amabile et al., 2004; Mumford et al., 2002; Shalley & Gilson, 2004) by directing and evaluating the work, providing the access or impeding it to resources and information, being involved in employees’ engagement with tasks and other people (Amabile et al., 2004), and facilitating idea production, experimentation, and the implementation of these ideas into new products (Mumford et al., 2002).

Many studies exploring the influence of leadership on creativity and innovation suggest that both task-oriented and people-oriented (or relationship-oriented) actions are needed (e.g. Amabile et al. 2004, Mumford et al., 2002; Slevin & Pinto, 1991; Thamhain, 2004), with successful leaders applying a two-fold strategy to their approach, including both leading the people and leading the work (Mumford, et al., 2002). Leading the people refers to leaders’ aims to stimulate and support creative efforts through their actions on followers, whereas leading the work is based on an indirect influence mechanism applied to integrate people’s activities and ensure the timely production of requisite outputs (Mumford, et al., 2002). This is in line with the classical behavioral approach, the two-factor theory of leadership, according to which all leadership behaviors can be characterized into either task- or relationship-oriented (or people-oriented) (Fleishman, 1953). Task-oriented leadership style refers to the problem at hand rather than the satisfactions of the group members, and includes activities such as defining task roles and role relationships among group members; coordinating group members’ actions; determining standards of task performance; providing evaluative feedback; and ensuring group members perform up to those standards (Derue, Nahrgang, Wellman, & Humphrey, 2011). Particularly relevant task-oriented leader behaviors include planning concrete actions, clarifying, and monitoring (Forsyth, 1990). Relationship-oriented leadership styles, on the other hand, address the feelings, attitudes, and dissatisfaction of the group members, and include supporting, developing, and recognizing. Even in groups that exist to complete tasks or solve problems, leaders must often take steps to meet the members’ personal needs. Boosting morale, increasing cohesiveness, reducing interpersonal conflict, establishing leader/follower rapport and illustrating one’s concerns and consideration for group members are all included in relationship-oriented leadership (Forsyth, 1990). Given the relevance of the task-oriented and relationship-oriented (or people-oriented) classification, both previous research on leadership activities stimulating innovativeness and the empirical research of the present paper will be presented as classified into task-oriented actions and people-oriented actions.

Task-Oriented Managerial Activities

Providing structure and direction to the project

The conventional role of a project manager is to set the long- and short-range goals for the project and to formulate plans to guide the project through time schedule and resource allocation (Roberts & Fusfeld, 1981; Friedman, Fleishman & Fletcher, 1992; Kim,Min, & Cha, 1999; Barczak & Wilemon, 2001). In innovative projects, the overall vision and strategy need to usually be stable, while the processes achieving them may often vary (Barczak & Wilemon, 1989). The planning activities have been viewed as critical for the success of innovation efforts (Kim et al., 1999, Friedman et al., 1992), but project managers face difficulties in setting clear goals and planning the methods to achieve these goals as innovation projects attempt to conquer the unknown (Kim et al., 1999).

Given the uncertain nature of creative work, leadership actions reducing uncertainty are essential (Mumford et al., 2002). Developing a vision to cope with uncertain goals has been noted to be one of the most important leader functions (Keller, 1992). According to Kotter (2001), developing a vision or setting a direction of the future is one of the most important functions of a leader. Moreover, different authors have emphasized that leaders need to continually remind team members about the vision, that is, about where the team is heading to during the innovation process (McDonough III & Barczak, 1991; Bass 1988).

On the other hand, freedom or autonomy has been recognized to motivate in creative work and to allow individuals to better pursue their unique insights (Amabile Conti, Coon, Lazenby, & Herron, 1996). Autonomy should be given concerning the processes, that is, how to approach the problem but not necessarily the ends (Amabile, 1998). Creativity is fostered when individuals and teams have relatively high autonomy in the day-to-day conduct of the work and a sense of ownership over their own ideas and their own work—having the feeling of having a choice of how to accomplish the tasks that they are given (Amabile, 1998; Amabile et al., 1996).

However, granting autonomy or freedom should not lead to unclear goals, as it is almost impossible to work creatively toward a target that keeps changing (Amabile, 1998). Earlier studies have noted clear project goals that are well understood among all members to result in greater focus and satisfaction, whereas the lack of clear project goals makes it difficult for the team to proceed (Barczak & Wilemon, 1989). Further, clearly specified strategic goals have been suggested to enhance creativity (Amabile, 1998) and the study of McDonough III (2000) suggests that developing appropriate project goals and entrusting the team with needed decision-making power are strongly associated with team success. Clear roles and responsibilities help to keep each member focused on his or her specific task. According to West and Richter (2008), ensuring clarity of team objectives will facilitate and support innovation by enabling focused development and filtering of ideas.

Providing domain expertise

Many of the discussed leadership behaviors require at least some degree of domain expertise from the leader, and, indeed, the importance of the technical expertise of the project manager in development projects has been emphasized (Barczak & Wilemon, 1989; Clark & Wheelwright, 1992; Howell & Higgins, 1990; Kim, et al., 1999). Research suggests that leaders should be able to contribute toward generating and recognizing feasible ideas, finding and defining significant problems, and providing technical stimulation to gather various ideas and solutions into a framework that can be used as a basis for further development (Roberts & Fusfeld, 1981; Howell & Higgins 1990; Kim, et al., 1999). Further, it has been noted that professionals tend to accept authority based on expertise better than authority based on hierarchy (Kim, et al., 1999). In addition to encouraging creative thinking, the leaders themselves should also come up with original ideas and that way show the team by example (Kim et al., 1999; Howell & Higgins, 1990). Kim et al. (1999) emphasize that especially in a case of radical development projects, it is important that leaders suggest new ideas and alternative technological solutions themselves and by this way provide technical stimulation. On the other hand, technical expertise in the domain might entice the project manager to go too deep into the role of a technical expert, at the expense of more fundamental leadership behaviors (Valle & Avella, 2003).

Encouraging exploration

One of the most important functions in leading innovative projects is to encourage employees to pay attention to new ideas, needs, and opportunities (see e.g. Bass, 1985 and 1988; Waldman & Bass, 1991; Kim et al., 1999; Hohn, 2000; Amabile & Khaire 2008). Leaders need to stimulate team members to consider and conceptualize problems in new ways (Waldman & Bass 1991, Hohn 2000) and encourage team members to do more than what might normally be expected (Keller, 1992). Elkins and Keller (2003) found project managers who communicate an inspirational vision and provide intellectual stimulation to be associated with project success.

In order to encourage exploration, leaders should explicitly request creative and innovative solutions (Waldman & Bass, 1991; Mumford et al., 2002; Amabile & Khaire, 2008), stimulate team members to consider and conceptualize problems in new ways (Waldman & Bass, 1991; Hohn, 2000), and offer complex and demanding tasks (Shalley & Gilson, 2004). Leaders also need to act as role models (Amabile, 1997; Mouly & Sankaran, 1999), leading by example in innovative projects (Barczak & Wilemon, 2001). This requires leaders to consciously monitor their own behavior to ensure they are sending the right message. Also, in order to promote individual involvement, the leader should allow people to select the problems they will work on (Arvey & Neel, 1975), encourage participation in defining the problems to be pursued and the approach to be used (Mumford et al., 2002), and provide people with challenges that match their interest and expertise (Pelz, 1967). Further, previous research also underlines providing autonomy and freedom to be vital for idea exploration and creativity (Hohn, 2000; Shalley & Gilson, 2004) as well as for intrinsic motivation (Hohn, 2000).

People-Oriented Managerial Activities

Fostering a climate supporting innovative pursuits

Developing team membership and fostering an environment where mutual trust exists and team members are willing to share different ideas, information, experiences, and perspectives is an important task for project managers (Kim et al., 1999; Barczak & Wilemon, 2001). Especially in a cross-functional effort, which is one of the cornerstones regarding teams with innovative tasks, team building is considered to be one of the most critical leadership activities (Kim et al., 1999; McDonough III, 2000; Barczak and Wilemon, 2001). Various factors influence the team climate, such as the kind of team members selected to the team and the way interpersonal conflicts and disagreements are handled in the team (Barczak & Wilemon, 2001).

Earlier studies have noted that an environment providing a personally non-threatening and supportive climate encourages employees to take the risk of proposing new ideas and to take more initiative in general (Amabile 1996; Edmondon, 1999; Baer & Frese, 2003). Having a climate of psychological safety has been recognized as vital in creative work, where team members must be able to share their ideas and openly propose new ways of working and to come up with alternative problem-solving approaches (Edmonson, 1999; Baer & Frese 2003). Furthermore, when individuals feel positive, they tend to connect and integrate divergent knowledge and stimulus materials, raising the possibility of a creative outcome (West & Richter, 2008). According to Fredrickson (2001), positive emotions build future capacity by promoting future persistence in the case of setbacks, thus increasing the likelihood of successful development results.

Minimizing the fear of failure

Since failure has been recognized to be a prerequisite to invention (Farson & Keyes, 2002), leaders should minimize the fear of failure and encourage risk-taking. According to Amabile and Khaire (2008), the goal should be to constantly experiment, to fail early and often, and to learn as much as possible during the process. Learning is also about crafting novel approaches (Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino, 2008). Although employees should be encouraged to take risks and explore the untested and unknown, this doesn’t mean abandoning leadership, quality of work, or respect for wound practices (Farson & Keyes, 2002). In fact, failure tolerance requires leaders to evaluate the efforts of employees, understanding as well as interpreting their work and its meaning to the individual.

In addition to minimizing the fear of failure, risk-taking can and should be explicitly encouraged (Smith and Park, 2001). Leaders should encourage collaboration instead of personal competition (Farson & Keyes, 2002). The reasoning is that if encouragement to take risk is low, the motivation to strive for creative breakthroughs by thinking outside the box is limited (Sethi, Smith, & Park, 2001). There should be a license to explore possibilities (Tierney, 2007), and a willingness to risk failure by pushing the limits of both personal and team capacity (Hohn, 2000), as well as the capabilities of technology and the boundaries of the organization (Kim et al., 1999). When individuals feel that the environment is safe for risk-taking and are not afraid of possible negative consequences, they are more likely to make the initiative (West & Richer, 2008) and to break out of routine (Shalley, 2008).

Providing support

Creative efforts have also been noted to require different kinds of leadership support: idea support, work support, and social support (Mumford et al., 2002). First, since creative people have been recognized to withdraw when encountered with premature criticism, it is important for leaders to prevent ideas from premature evaluations and provide critical feedback only after there has been enough time to develop idea further, as earlier studies have already shown (Farris, 1972). Thus, leaders should ensure that ideas get to the experimentation stage, where ideas will be progressively refined.

Second, providing sufficient resources for pursuing the generation and implementation of different solutions is necessary for supporting creative pursuits (Mumford et al., 2002). However, in creative work, time seems to be the most important resource (Amabile et al., 2002). The study of Amabile et al., (2002) suggests that creative work needs time for exploring different perspectives and playing with ideas. Further, the study of Garvin et al., (2008) also showed that in a too busy or overstressed environment, the ability to think creatively is compromised and people become less able to diagnose problems or to learn from their experiences. Creativity gets easily killed with impossibly tight deadlines, hence, allowing time for exploration is necessary (Amabile, 1998). Also, the research of Amabile et al., (2002) shows, that creativity suffers from time pressure. Interestingly, the study showed that time pressure on a certain day meant less creative thinking on that day and on the next two days. Hence, protecting creative work from time pressure is essential. However, in cases where avoiding time pressure is unavoidable, the effect can be minimized by sharing a sense that the work is vital and in aiming to protect the creative work from distractions and interruptions.

Finally, in order to provide social support, leaders should recognize the value of each individual’s contribution, provide constructive feedback, and show confidence in the work group (Amabile, 1997). Since project groups are typically composed of individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives, problems, and needs, individual consideration is needed. This means treating followers as individuals, showing concern for their unique problems and approaches to work, and providing developmental opportunities according to individuals’ needs and desires (Bass, 1988; Keller, 1992). Further, it is important to reward employees also for their attempts to initiate creative activity, not only the creative outcomes (Zhou, 2008). The study conducted by Barczak and Wilemon (2001) showed that cross-functional team members are frustrated by the lack of knowledge and understanding about the evaluation and reward systems for NPD work. Thus, the criteria and the specifics of the rewards for a good performance need to be clearly communicated to the team members. Also, because of the novel and ill-defined nature of creative work, leaders should try to build feelings of efficacy and competence with regard to the work being done (Redmond, Mumford & Teach, 1993).


In order to explore project management activities, concerns, and challenges in the front-end phase of innovations, 15 in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted. Data was collected from a graduate level product development course, during the 2010–2011 semester. In the course, student teams with student managers are formed based on student applications, and each team is given a unique industry-provided design brief. The sponsors requested specific consumer products, new service-focused products, improved functionality of existing services, new parts for existing physical devices, and building a new business concept around a product, all of which needed to result in a functional prototype by the end of the course. In addition to the design brief, the sponsor provided a €10 000 budget for the development work for the duration of the course, eight months. The project teams varied between 8 and 13 persons in size, each having some students with backgrounds from various fields of engineering, business, and industrial design. Nine teams also had some (typically 3) off-site members from a partner university abroad.

All of the project managers of the course were interviewed after the projects had been running approximately two months, i.e. when the projects were in the midst of the front-end phase. The interviewees were prompted to reflect on their activities, their principal roles and challenges in the project. The resulting 15 interviews lasted between 28 and 72 minutes, averaging at 40 minutes. The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis.

The transcripts of the 15 interviews were screened for segments (Chi, 1997), identifying leadership activities, self-reported leadership style dimensions, and challenges described by the project managers, resulting in 757 segments. These were grouped together based on thematic similarity, resulting in 19 categories; which were then further grouped into five task- or people-oriented classes (see Tables 1 and 2): The grouping into task- and relationship-oriented concerns was based on existing literature on management and leadership activities (Derue et al. 2011; Fiedler, 1967; Slevin, 1989).


A total of 757 managerial activities and challenges were identified in the interview transcripts. These activities and challenges fell into five main classes: general project management, providing suitable context for development work, responsibility and ownership, providing support within a team, and establishing a climate of trust (see Tables 1 and 2), which were defined as either task or people-oriented based on existing literature (Derue et al., 2011; Fiedler, 1967; Slevin, 1989).

Task-Oriented Managerial Activities and Challenges in the Front-End Phase

In total, task-oriented managerial activities were reported approximately three times as much as people-oriented activities; the managers described altogether 401 task-oriented activities in comparison to only 139 people-oriented activities. A total of 156 task-oriented challenges were recognized. The division of segments in task-oriented activities and challenges is presented in Table 1.

General project management

This class involved activities and concerns related to organizing work, keeping the project under control, and ensuring the progress of work and was the most numerous class of the three task-oriented classes. It consisted of five subcategories: clarifying roles and setting goals, coordinating the whole, time management, monitoring work and documentation, and acting as an interface.

The largest category, clarifying roles and setting goals, contained activities such as defining team member roles, forming and delegating tasks, and deadlines. Such activities were by far the most common activities that the project managers reported, totalling in 93 activities. Several challenges surfaced, especially related to role and task allocation. The managers reported that finding roles for every team member was challenging, especially for the less active team members. Further, in some of the cases defining separate roles for all members when there were many representatives from the same discipline was reported as difficult.

All the managers emphasized also the importance of coordinating the whole, including activities such as defining the whole, keeping the project (direction) under control, seeing the big picture, and coordinating the work of different parties. Activities such as sharing information between subgroups and making sure everyone was heading in the same direction were perceived as important, and in total the activities were the second largest activity category. However, the activities totaled in approximately 12% of all reported activities (both task- and people-oriented), while coordination challenges represented only approximately 5% of all reported challenges.

The third category, time management, involved scheduling the project and meetings of the team, and clarifying how much each member had time to use for the project. In total, there were many times more challenges reported in this category than activities (34 challenges and 20 activities). One of the most frequently expressed challenges was creating schedules so that all team members could participate in the team meetings or informal gatherings, a challenge reported by all project managers.

The category of documentation and monitoring work, included segments reflecting documenting decisions and following up on delegated tasks, for example by checking the situation in weekly team meetings or inquiring on progress by phone or email. The majority of reported activities were related to documentation, and only two challenges were reported related to the category.

The last subcategory of the general project management activities, acting as an interface, consisted of a few segments describing acting as a link between the team and outside parties, such as the project sponsor, and being in charge of answering the inquiries from the sponsor side. These activities were somewhat emphasized by the project managers, as the work in the front-end phase was a lot about defining the scope of the project.

Providing a suitable context for development work

The class consisted of innovation project specific activities and concerns aiming to boost the working of a multidisciplinary team. The four categories of the class were: establishing ways of working, accommodating to diversity, and encouraging exploration.

The category of accommodating to diversity was the largest category of the class. In fact, challenges related to accommodating to the diversity brought on by project members with different educational and cultural backgrounds, as well as managing off-site project members, comprised the largest category of all front-end challenges, totalling in 46 reported challenges. In contrast, only 17 activities targeted at solving these issues were reported. The category included interview segments reflecting how diversity affected the ways of working and the behavior of the manager. For example, creating a common vision and understanding was more challenging due to the educational and cultural diversity of the team, and ideation challenges resulted from the different perspectives and approaches of designers and engineers

Encouraging exploration, in turn, was by far the most common activity reported in relation to creating a suitable context for the project. It contained activities such as explicitly requesting the team members to produce several solution alternatives to problems, encouraging team members to take on multiple perspectives, and avoiding providing any ready solutions. This was seen to be challenging also as the managers were still searching for the best way to interact with their teams.

Finally, the third category, establishing suitable ways of working, included concerns such as “selling” ideas to the team, protecting ideas from premature criticism, and communicating the desired behavior to the team.

Responsibility and ownership

The final task-related class contained interview segments reflecting the extent to which the managers distributed decision making power (in the categories of dispersed decision making and providing autonomy) and personally took part in the development work (in the category of hands-on participation). The class consisted of the following categories: providing autonomy, decisions made solely by the manager, dispersed decision making, and hands-on participation. This class was perceived as the least problematic of the project manager concerns, totaling in about 6% of all challenges.

The managers reported much more distributed decisions, with dispersed decision making and providing autonomy being more numerous than hands-on participation or decisions made solely by the manager. The largest category, dispersed decision making, included segments were project managers described sharing decision making power with the entire team, whereas the category of providing team member autonomy contained actions such as letting team members pursue solutions to possible challenges independently. Autonomy was mainly provided through offering more general level task definitions rather than specific instructions, and all the managers provided decision authority to the sub-groups of the project on their own tasks.

In contrast, in the category of hands-on participation, the managers described taking part in the actual development work of the project, typically in building the prototype—more precisely, this involved activities related to concept creation and ideation.

Finally, the category of decisions made solely by the manager, reflected the project manager having a strong role in decision making and making the final decisions in situations where no clear decisions could be made with the team. Typically, however, the project managers reported making decisions alone only in minor decisions and events such as deciding on meeting times.

Type Class Category FEI Total
Act. Cha.
Task-oriented General project management Clarifying roles and setting goals 93 26 119
Coordinating the whole 67 13 80
Time management 21 37 58
Documentation and monitoring work 30 2 32
Acting as an interface 18 2 20
Class total 229 80 309
Providing a suitable context for development work Encouraging exploration 49 15 64
Accommodating to diversity 17 46 63
Establishing ways of working 25 3 28
Class total 91 64 155
Responsibility and ownership Providing autonomy 27 1 28
Dispersed decision making 24 2 26
Hands-on participation 18 4 22
Decision solely made by the manager 12 5 17
Class total 81 12 93
Total, task-oriented 401 156 557

Table 1: Task-oriented activities (Act.) and challenges (Cha.) in front-end phase

People-Oriented Managerial Activities and Challenges in the Front-End Phase

People-oriented activities, in turn, consisted of two classes of concerns: providing support within the team and establishing a climate of trust. In total, managers identified 139 activities and 61 challenges in their people-oriented concerns. The amount of reported people-oriented activities was less than half of the number of reported task-oriented activities. Further, in relation to activities, more challenges were reported in the people-oriented approach than in the task-oriented one (challenge/activity ratios 61/139= 0.44 vs. 156/401 = 0.39).

Providing support within the team

Providing support within the team was the larger of the two classes of people-related managerial concerns reported by the project managers. The class included managers’ actions aimed at gaining the participation of all project members, showing appreciation, and taking individual needs and differences into account. It consisted of four categories; encouraging team member participation, being available and present, showing concern and appreciation, and providing positive feedback and recognition.

Encouraging team member participation was the largest category in the class in terms of both the activities as well as the challenges, accounting for approximately 77 % of segments in the entire class. The methods of encouraging participation included actively asking for opinions, explicitly encouraging participation in tasks, dividing the team into smaller subgroups and contacting quieter team members individually to prompt for their view. The amount of challenges in the category was also the second largest, surpassed by only difficulties in accommodating to diversity. Challenges were reported mainly in getting all team members to voice their opinion as team meetings were held in English, the mother tongue of none of the members, and in getting engineers to participate actively in tasks outside their field of know-how.

The other three categories were relatively small, containing between 6 and 11 segments in total. Some project managers highlighted the importance of being available and present for team members by allocating time for one-on-one meetings, keeping contact by phone and being present while subgroups were working on their own tasks. Showing concern and appreciation, in turn, involved managers showing interest in the well-being of individuals and appreciating the expertise of each team member. Providing positive feedback and recognition consisted mainly of giving positive feedback from work well done. No manager reported giving any negative feedback, and no challenges were reported related to any of these three categories.

Establishing a climate of trust

The final class, establishing a climate of trust, included managerial concerns of fostering open interaction and good team spirit by aiming to act as role models and emphasizing the importance of learning rather than succeeding. The class consisted of three categories: creating an open and trustful atmosphere, solving interpersonal issues and acting as a mediator, and minimizing fear of failure in the project team.

The largest category, creating an open and trustful atmosphere, was highlighted by all managers. Managers emphasized the importance of getting to know their team and making the team meetings more relaxed. They encouraged team members to give feedback, acted openly and relaxed themselves, and aimed not to dominate the meetings. The challenges occurred with team members being reluctant to spend time and participate actively in team meetings or informal gatherings.

Activities in the category of solving interpersonal issues and acting as a mediator involved the managers having one-on-one discussions with team members and mediating disagreements among team members. Most frequently the challenges were related to clashing personalities of the project manager and some team member.

Finally, some managers attempted to mitigate the fear of failure by emphasizing the importance of learning rather than succeeding right away. No challenges were identified in this category.

Type Class Category FEI Total
Act. Cha.
Providing support within the team Encouraging team member participation 58 39 97
Being present and available 11 0 11
Showing concern and appreciation 9 0 9
Providing positive feedback and recognition 6 0 6
Class total 84 39 123
People-oriented Establishing a climate of trust Creating an open and trustful atmosphere 40 13 53
Solving interpersonal issues and acting as a mediator 8 9 17
Minimizing fear of failure 7 0 7
Class total 55 22 77
Total, people-oriented 139 61 200

Table 2: People-oriented activities (Act.) and challenges (Cha.) in front-end phase


The present study explored the activities and challenges experienced by project managers in the front-end phase of projects aiming for innovations. The results provide further support for findings, suggesting that project managers tend to utilize a more task-oriented than people-oriented leadership style (e.g. Mäkiluoto, 2004), with task-related activities accounting for the clear majority of managerial concerns. Indeed, traditional activities such as goal-setting and coordinating the work were the most frequent activities reported. However, encouraging team member participation, encouraging exploration in the project, and creating an open and trustful atmosphere were also key actions of the project managers. Indeed, the formative phase of project team development can be vital in determining the ways in which project teams develop and perform throughout the project (Ericksen & Dyer, 2004), and prior research highlights the project manager’s role in the constitution and maintenance of team climate, as the project manager is traditionally the one who manages the project on a day-to-day basis (Lee-Kelley & Loong, 2003).

Interestingly, there were two categories where the amount of activities reported by the project managers was overshadowed by the amount of challenges. Finding ways to work with the diverse team members and include team members from off-site locations and minority (compared to the majority team composition) backgrounds (category: accommodating to diversity) was the most frequent challenge reported by the managers, but they had not performed many actions to target these problems, seemingly being at a loss on how to change the situation. On the other hand, time management was seen as very problematic, as all project members (including the manager) were involved in other projects and functions as well. Again, the managers had found few ways to directly combat these problems. Selmer (2002) has previously suggested that project leaders, in response to stressful project problems, may choose mental avoidance as their strategy to cope with the situation, which finally results in task-oriented leadership—one possible explanation for the task-dominated managerial approaches found in the study.

On the other hand, previous research has emphasized the importance of domain experience of the project manager, suggesting that project managers should for example be able to suggest ideas and define problems in the solutions (Howell & Higgins, 1990; Kim et al., 1999; Roberts & Fusfeld, 1981). Hands-on participation in the project was; however, fairly minor in the present study. Actively participating in the project was mainly highlighted in encouraging ideation by giving examples, suggestions, and comments to increase exploration and get ideation sessions going.

In general, a fairly democratic, dispersed decision style was exhibited by the managers. Monitoring was kept at a minimum, and the managers preferred to provide autonomy for individuals and sub-teams, allowing them to decide the most fruitful way of working and making decisions within their field of expertise. Indeed, the need for autonomy has been highlighted in promoting creativity and initiative (e.g. Amabile, 1998; Baer & Frese, 2002).

The present study thus helps to shed a light on managerial activities and challenges during the front-end phase of innovation process. Although the rather small amount of participants all located in a university context does somewhat limit the generalizability of the study, the results provide important insight on the circumstances of project managers in the front-end of innovation and how they aim to cope with fluctuating contingencies in order to foster innovation.


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Satu Rekonen, Lic.Sc. (Tech.) and M.Sc. (Econ.), is a PhD student at Aalto University School of Science. Her research focuses on managing explorative projects and on the dynamics of managerial activities along innovative projects. Before pursuing her PhD she worked in the banking field for several years and is a founding partner in a consulting company that instructs clients on how to support creative development activities and utilize design methods in various contexts.

©2014 Project Management Institute Research and Education Conference



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