Pilot projects--making innovations and new concepts fly


The world faces an increasing array of technological, business and environmental innovations and concept opportunities. With these opportunities, however, there are project management challenges to turn these into reality.

To explore and deploy new innovations and concepts, individuals, businesses and governments all require project leaders with leading edge process knowledge. These leaders must be able to understand and execute core concept elements to determine opportunity viability. Project managers develop their projects to carry out concept principles, while conceptualizing pilot elements as the best and most efficient means to test and carry out these new initiatives.

Even experienced project managers encounter difficulties and face a number of questions while developing new concept approaches. To what degree do traditional project management frameworks apply? Should pilot projects be managed differently than traditional projects? Must planning, management methods, and measurements be adjusted for deploying new innovation and concepts? This paper discusses project challenges in introducing and executing innovations and concepts in ways that attempt to answer these questions. To aid this discussion, this paper is divided into several parts:

Part 1 — Defines the basic definitions of pilot project opportunities;

Part 2 — Outlines a number of issues unique to pilot project activities and possible solutions to overcoming these;

Part 3 — Discusses pilot project benefits with a breakout of traditional project constraints; and

Part 4 — Provides a summary analysis, conclusions, and tips to move forward.

All aspects are outlined from a practical project management perspective in ways that help the traditional project manager manage for success.

Part 1 – Basic Definitions


The term “pilot project” has been around for some time. As a result, the term has become rather generic resulting in confusion and misinterpretation in terms of what is ultimately required from such an effort. Fundamentally, it often means a leading effort to attempt to determine viability.

Aside from where the effort is focused, some see a pilot as a simple concept test, whereas for others, a pilot project is interpreted as invaluable for collecting product or concept data and information. When considering the effort, supporters see much value in the use of a pilot, whereas opponents view it as company sponsored “play time,” and not to be taken seriously.

It is important to understand gaps in how pilot projects are interpreted and used as a tool and ultimately perceived inside and outside of the organization. For the pilot project manager, this means effort is required to fully define and obtain this information from concept stakeholders to ensure the concept is handled and the pilot will meet requirements.

Questions also exist in terms of where and when to apply the pilot project as a tool. Some organizations use pilot projects as a means of identifying and qualifying full (“end to end”) opportunities, whereas others use pilots as part of a much larger program (to test particular elements). For the pilot project manager, this means that ultimate pilot utility and goals will vary greatly and potentially be desired at different stages.

Pilot projects can apply to a multitude of opportunities, including new concepts and innovations. This can certainly be a leading edge, state of the art initiative or, simply be a concept or process new or on trial to the organization.

Application of Traditional Project Practices

Can traditional project practices be used or applied to a leading edge initiative? The mix of traditional project practices and new concepts is delicate. The application of too much or too little project process can lead to unrealistic outcomes, inaccurate results, and ultimately failed outcomes.

The project manager must balance decisions and choices in a way that does not jeopardize concept success. For example, looking at timing, this means all decisions must be performed at a rate that allows the opportunity to be executed as industries, marketplaces, or businesses demand.

Pilot Objectives and Outputs

A number of pilot project outputs are possible, pending pilot and business desires and objectives. Specific ones are dependent on the overall concept or innovation business case and form the basis for the pilot project. Put another way—these outputs are what the pilot project must ultimately deliver and what is evaluated, and include:

- A study outlining concept feasibility:

- A report outlining a yes or no business decision (to proceed or not);

- A fully useable product, service or process; and/or

- A template to create or replicate.

In all cases, it is up to the pilot project manager to continually attend to the output by focusing resources in the right direction to achieve the desired objectives.

Part 2 – Issues

Project managers face a number of issues when it comes to planning and delivery of pilot projects. This may be due to the fact that there is a particular focus on the new concept or innovation and not necessarily on applying organizational project processes (and methodologies). As a result, the project manager is often left to analyze the impact on project management practices and adjust standard project approach and methodology practices to accommodate pilot project activities.

When an issue related to the concept is identified, the project manager must record the event and perform an impact analysis. This analysis must specifically address:

- If the issue was caused by an execution error, an environmental factor, or by the core concept;

- The degree of significance of the issue; and

- If the issue can be overcome and not impact concept results.

The degree to which the issue can be overcome often comes down to the strength of the innovation and concept, because initially, the main strength of the innovation or concept is its perceived potential value it may bring to the organization. This value is the concept's main survival mechanism early in the process.

Ultimate success is dependent upon how the project manager applies (or in some cases does not apply) project controls and disciplines. Quite simply, there is evidence that a number of issues may be introduced if standard project methodologies are used to manage and control a pilot. For the project manager, this means performing an analysis and applying sound project management judgment and knowledge.

The following sections outline several issues related to piloting new projects. It is important for the pilot project manager to note each issue, using the evaluation process as noted above.

Issue #1 –Project management versus the rest of the world

When it comes to executing a leading edge opportunity or concept, inevitably there will be different interpretations as to how to design and achieve the goal (determining viability or other). It is up to the project manager to define, sell, and integrate the inclusion of standard project practices into concept execution.

Pending the organizational parties involved (e.g., engineering, marketing, technology, accounting, executive team), the project management practice has challenges in containing, planning, and controlling project elements. For example, sometimes timing demands are based on marketing hype, overshadowing the need for applying sound project practices and methodologies.

Overall, there will be opinions with respect to:

- Speed (how fast to move the concept forward);

- Simplification (how to simplify the innovation or concept to test it);

- Process (what process will work best for the innovation and concept);

- Interpretation of project events and success (certain elements are good and bad); and

- Results (overall innovation or concept success/results).

There is a correlation between the size of the opportunity (concept) and each of the opinions. In other words, the larger the opportunity perception, the greater the opinions will be. This will greatly impact the project definition and activity. The project manager will face the following tactical opinions:

“Go fast”; “Just do it”; “Formalizing a project is a waste of time.”

Issue #1 – Solution – Project management versus the rest of the world

Project managers must “stake their claim”; in other words, they must, to the best of their abilities, fully participate in concept development and integration of sound project practices. This includes voicing and applying sound project management practices against the concept or innovation. The project manager must be included in meetings and events that define the opportunity, and sessions to determine how to best carry the concept forward to achieve program goals.

Issue #2 – Project management and ability to lead change

New innovations and concepts involve a great deal of organizational change and in business, an entrepreneur best represents a party who embrace new concepts, innovation, and risk. Although project managers manage projects (which imply change), this does not mean they are equipped to act as organizational change agents.

Project managers are trained (and known) to control project elements and variables in an effort not to take unnecessary chances and reduce project risk. The impact of these opposing values must be recognized in a project context. Given this, one can therefore fundamentally conclude that project managers are not equipped to effectively deal with new concepts or innovation.

These competing values are outlined in Exhibit 1 – “Entrepreneur versus PM Values

Entrepreneur versus PM Values

Exhibit 1 – Entrepreneur versus PM Values

Issue #2 Solution – Project management and ability to lead change

There are several options to consider in addressing the issue of ability to lead. The primary activity involves allowing the project manager to inherit an entrepreneurial role and be provided latitude with respect to concept processing and decision making.

Allowing latitude allows focus to be placed on the new concept or innovation, versus project process and controls, which may impede the opportunity. In the end, it must be up to the project manager to provide a balance between entrepreneur and project management values; however, the project manager must demonstrate he or she is capable and competent in performing entrepreneurial activities and tasks, in addition to representing project management interests.

Issue #3 – Project tools and practices

Many issues are introduced when standard and particularly “stringent” project practices are applied against a simple pilot environment. When this occurs, the concept is potentially smothered with process and bureaucracy, resulting in wasted resources and efforts and/or in many cases, failed results.

However, using the opposite approach of not applying and using informal practices will also cause major issues and concerns. More specifically, if particular practices are omitted from the pilot project, then the concept or innovation delivery is given an advantage, creating unfair treatment or unrealistic project conditions. A defined balance of pilot procedures must be considered.

Looking at an example, a formal change management process is a common part of an organization's standard project methodology. Change management development and approval processes are used to handle project changes and control approvals during execution.

In a large organization, the change management process usually requires the engagement of several levels and organizational units, including technical, project, and business stakeholders. The intent of this is to ensure all levels have seen the change, agree with it, and acknowledge the change is truly needed. In many cases, change management is intended to put controls in place — particularly in the areas of scope and cost.

If a pilot is initiated, questions arise as to how much formal change management process to apply? Given the assumption that the pilot innovation or concept is simpler, scaled down, and does not contain the scope or dollars associated with a full process, the question should be asked as to how to apply the full change process.

Answers to this may depend on the following:

- The objectives (e.g., prove a concept, create a prototype);

- What exactly is being piloted (the outputs);

- The innovation or concept significance;

- The importance of the change; or

- The importance of applying the change process in the eye of the organization

Issue #3 Solution – Project tools and practices

The solution to project tools and practices lie with the project manager's ability to quickly understand, interpret, and apply the new innovation or concept into project management terms. To do this, a pilot project manager must:

- Inventory standard processes or methodologies in an effort to understand the impact of elements on the leading edge concept;

- Apply corporate policies and procedures to the pilot — and attempt to estimate the impact; and

- Understand the business drivers of the new concept and/or innovation.

As policy impacts are determined, the project manager can then define specific steps to eliminate or downsize. This must be performed with great care and due diligence to avoid implementation errors.

All standard plans must be inventoried and considered within a pilot project realm. From the initial project charter through final reports, all plans must be inventoried and evaluated for fitness of use for any particular pilot project activity. Even the most basic standard plans can be considered unnecessary; however, all must be formally scored and eliminated or modified. Modifications may range from a simple reduction or addition of plan elements or major overhauling to accommodate pilot scope and objectives.

Issue #4 – Historical and goal information

When it comes to leading edge pilot projects, a project manager is challenged by the absence of historical information. Historical information provides project managers with a basis for determining resources, scope, budget, and other project elements. These elements are especially challenging when it comes to new concepts and innovations, because the information for estimating and execution is not readily available.

Issue #4 Solution – Historical and goal information

There are a number of sources to consider that may provide historical information, provide insight, or assist with estimating purposes:

- Similar projects and pilot projects;

- An organizational knowledge base (lessons learned);

- Industry and trade associations;

- Subject matter experts (SMEs);

- Vendors

- Professional organizations (e.g., Project Management Institute)

Issue #5 – Need for specialized resources

There are several resourcing issues to consider with respect to pilot project resource handling. Related to the issue above, the lack of historical information provides very little indication as to the level or amount of resources required to achieve particular objectives.

An even greater challenge to the amount is the type of resources. For truly industry leading edge concepts and innovations, it will be difficult to source the correct subject matter or knowledge experts within the organization who understand specific details of what or how to set up or execute or control the innovation or concept.

Additionally, in a large organization with a scaled down pilot project, it is often difficult to find committed resources to participate. In this case, a small size makes the pilot viewed as more of an “inconvenience” or “irritant.”

Issue #5 Solution – Pilot project resourcing

A customized resource plan is required to accommodate pilot projects. This must include an outline of required skillsets and traits, along with any indication of possible sources to pursue that contain suitable resources.

Searches for qualified resources may turn into a global endeavor and include many options, including remote and virtual team development. Other sources of assistance include human resource departments and online industry/ social networks.

Issue #6 – Pilot project concept priority

New concepts and innovations face a number of challenges when being introduced into the organization. More specifically, they go up against existing revenue and organizational producing activities. As stated earlier, the main strength of the opportunity is the potential in the innovation or concept; however, sometimes this potential is difficult to measure and subjective between stakeholders.

Issue #6 Solution – Pilot project concept priority

Similar to traditional project opportunities, sponsor and organizational executive support is key and critical to the priority of the potential piloted item. In the case of a new innovation or concept, the strength of the initiative is as strong as the stated support.

Issue #7 – Pilot concept and project respect

Respect is a major challenge when it comes to new concept projects. New company innovations or concepts sometimes have little psychological connections or bonds with the average user (and is particularly challenging if it is perceived to have a significant negative impact on his or her job). As a result, for those not directly aware of the benefits, the level of respect is generally at a minimum until proven otherwise.

With little respect, the pilot project will be challenged when looking for assistance or support outside of the immediate team. This is especially true when, for example, resources or support is required from these outside parties. Without respect, fulfilling resources or support is often provided by others on “good faith.”

Although this may be similar to other traditional projects, given pilot projects are typically scaled down and executed with less resources and/or funding, the challenge of building respect is even greater. This means the project manager must justify and defend even simple activity and resource requests.

Issue #7 Solution – Pilot concept and project respect

It is up to the project manager to build the level of project respect necessary for supporting the new innovation or concept. Respect can be built by:

- Delivering quick and early benefits or wins;

- Demonstrating physical benefits to stakeholders;

- Involving as many stakeholders as possible in the decision-making process; and/or

- Communicating benefits.

Issue #8 – Pilot production

Pilot projects or products produced on a scaled down basis do not produce at the levels of a regular product. In many cases, costs, production, and revenues are a fraction of what a full production system would be. In addition, where large production levels are involved, economies of scale or efficiencies are difficult to achieve. The organization must be prepared to look beyond the production costs and numbers for the opportunity itself.

Issue #8 Solution – Pilot production

Pilot production issues force the pilot project manager to adjust focus from a product centric focus to a data focus. When this occurs, there must also be a psychological shift to more of an analytics mode to determine the necessary data for evaluation.

To a certain degree, project team members must become data collectors or statisticians with respect to the analysis of sample data, which for many project methodologies is out of the ordinary. This includes:

- Normal probability curve populations and sampling

  • t and z tables (significant in the statistics world for describing real world data)

- Data sampling methodologies;

- Determining data relationships;

- Performing linear regression; and

- Estimation.

Part 3 – Project Management Pilot Benefits

Pilot Project Benefits – A Project Management Perspective

Beyond the basic issues of applying a new concept or opportunity to the organization, there are a number of benefits to be realized from a project perspective. Looking at each of the standard project constraints as outlined in Exhibit 2 - Constraints (Zbrodoff, 2010), a number of benefits can be realized as a result of pilot project execution.

By considering each constraint, the project manager will be fully engaged and have an interest throughout the pilot process.

Quality Benefits – A pilot is a practice area for rehearsing project practices and procedures. Under most circumstances, pilots allow teams to execute and attempt particular elements, without significant pressures or money at stake. Quality can be defined, refined, and documented.

Time Benefits – A pilot provides significant benefits with respect to time elements. Specifically, when a pilot is executed, it allows organizational issues to be exposed in advance of a full execution.


Exhibit 2 - Constraints

“Earlier discovery means preparations can be made, contingencies developed, and situations avoided. Earlier discovery of issues is advantageous when dealing with large, mission critical, or particularly risky production environments.” (Zbrodoff, 2010)

Budget Benefits – A pilot project can benefit the project budget in several ways. For example, if the pilot produces a deliverable, which can be “reused” when the concept or innovation is approved (and it is produced early), then there will be a budget benefit. In addition, budgetary numbers can be obtained by the project manager for the post-pilot era.

Scope Benefits – Any scope pre-gathering exercise is beneficial. For example, as a pilot is executed, participants have the opportunity to contribute requirements as the innovation or concept is deployed. Theoretically, this will assist with future deployment of the innovation or concept and control “runaway” requests during this time.

Risk Benefits – Pilot projects provide many benefits in the area of risk. Pilot execution allows risks to be identified, documented, authenticated, mitigated, tested, or possibly solved in a less intense environment.

Resource Benefits – Aside from the issue of obtaining highly specialized expertise, conversely, pilot projects are also able to provide benefits with respect to resources. Simply, team members can be tested with respect to their ability to work with the new concept or innovation.

In addition, the pilot will allow much needed concept or innovation knowledge. This is beneficial when the project is executed on a much larger scale.

Part 4 – Recommendations Summary and Tips

Recommendations Summary

Several significant points have been identified. When involved in developing a new concept or innovation, the project manager must:

- Become involved and be included in the opportunity;

- “Step up” as an agent of change;

- Demonstrate the ability to lead organizational change;

- Be prepared to adjust methodology;

- Consider alternative means of estimating;

- Outline specialized resource requirements and be prepared to perform a global search for the right resources;

- Maintain priority by assuring executive and sponsor support;

- Build the level of concept/innovation respect by obtaining and demonstrating early wins to stakeholders;

- Be prepared to step outside of traditional project practices and roles (e.g., statistician); and

- Don't forget the business drivers and need for the innovation/concept.

It is important for any potential pilot project manager to understand where a pilot excels, falls short, and produces value to the organization. This is not always a straightforward process and will require effort.

Additional Recommendation Tip

One of the most important activities to perform while executing and post pilot is to create and update organizational knowledge. This is often stored in what is referred to as a “knowledge or lessons learned” database.

This system formalizes the knowledge gained from executing the concept or innovation, and is able to contribute information for future advanced concept deployments.


To re-state and outline conclusions addressing the original questions:

Should pilot projects be managed differently than traditional projects?

The recommendations summary contains evidence that project managers must manage pilot projects (or those involving deploying innovations and concepts) differently than a traditional project. Different is defined as using alternative steps and/or involving additional or revised activities. Specific examples of this are the requirement for the project manager to act as an “agent of change” and demonstrate the ability to lead organizational change. Next, the delivery of a “pilot study” is fundamentally different than a product or service. This will require different resources and activities.

Must planning and management methods be adjusted for deploying new innovation and concepts?

The recommendation list indicates the requirement to adjust planning and management methods for deploying new innovations and concepts. Referring to a specific example in the recommendation list, the adjustments to standard methodologies demonstrate project managers must adjust planning and management methods. Additional points also suggest project managers must also adjust formal project controls and mechanisms.

Work Cited

Zbrodoff, S. (2010). Pilot projects, making innovations and new concepts fly. Calgary: Pilot Project International Inc.

© 2012, Shane Zbrodoff
Published as part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada



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