Taking innovation to reality

disruptive project management

Pamela Stevenson, PMP

AIG AVP PM Capability, Founder-Chief Project Office Partners


We are seeing the millennial generation come up as new buyers and providers in today's market and the market of the future. This generation is used to having everything they need at their fingertips and only one touch away. This requires business to look into disruptive solutions to market in a more streamlined fashion. Taking a modified approach to project management is needed to work between the demands of the market, combined with the needs of the business you work within to realize those ideas. Through some “disruptive” project management strategies, we'll evaluate how to utilize entrepreneurial skills, agile methods mixed with other frameworks, and communications needed to overcome the unique challenges for these types of projects.


  • Address unique challenges faced with projects related to disruptive, innovative, and complex projects;
  • Learn how to bring entrepreneurial skills and agile “mix” methods to the project management toolkit; and
  • Highlight unique challenges and solutions in bringing disruptive ideas to market.

Innovation-based, disruptive ideas present unique challenges for project managers. Challenges facing these innovative projects include the need for a streamlined project management approach, access to test environments (sometimes referred to as an “innovation lab”), improved communications with users of the innovative idea throughout the life cycle, and an effective launch with ongoing iterative release management for the product once in pilot stage. The standard project management waterfall approach tends to take too long to get through the various stages to take something new to market. In an environment where speed and quality are both important, project managers are challenged with finding unique ways to balance the triple constraint.

How do project managers prepare for this type of project? What we've seen thus far is the best lessons learned are coming from entrepreneurial strategies and methods to create an “intrapreneurial” project management environment. Addressing the needs for speed to market by using the “pilot concept” with innovation labs, combined with a mixed agile/SDLC approach to iterative development, all while keeping the stakeholders engaged seems to work best for innovative project cultures.

Ultimately, the goal is to get these ideas to market better, faster, and with less cost. Challenges in making innovation real and releasing to the market requires open and out-of-the-box thinking to address the challenges of these unique projects. We can explore methods to solve these challenges by taking lessons learned from innovative disruptive ideas, considering the unique challenges and solutions for innovation projects, evaluating entrepreneurial strategies, and addressing communication needs in support of taking innovation to reality.

Disruptive Ideas

What defines an innovation or disruptive idea? Webster defines innovation as “a new idea, device, or method; the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.” Disruptive is defined as, “to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way; to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something).” As we look at innovation and disruptive ideas, innovation is the process of coming up with and introducing new ideas where disruptive ideas may be a type of idea submitted as a part of innovation. Ultimately, in order to take innovation to reality in today's market, we need to stop doing things normally and look at disruptive methods to take these ideas to market. Let us evaluate organizations implementing innovation programs to see what they recommend.

According to the InnovationManagement.se website (von Dyke, 2015), the top challenges for overall innovation programs include:

  • Managing intellectual property issues and other legal risks,
  • Processing ideas quickly and efficiently, and
  • Establishing an efficient internal structure.

Companies like Procter & Gamble, NASA, IBM, and 3M are just a sample of the organizations investing in dedicated innovation programs. We explore the unique challenges specific to managing innovation and disruptive idea projects.

Unique Challenges

Based on those differences, the unique challenges faced by project managers of these projects have cause for some changes in how we approach traditional project management. Innovative projects have similar challenges to any project from a high level; however, each common challenge has a unique perspective when leading and directing innovative projects or projects with disruptive solutions. The most typical challenges are based on triple constraint and rooted in communications throughout the life cycle. These include: time, quality, cost, effort, resources, and communications.


Innovation, by nature, has a speed to market need in order to keep ahead of competition in the market. First to market for new ideas can make or break a company or product. Timing for the initial product build, prototype, and pilot release is important to meet the market demands. The timeline for creating communications and “buzz” about disruptive project ideas is also a challenge, which may be more unique than standard projects.


“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” This statement is very important when launching new and innovative ideas. If it does not meet the primary need of the intended solution when it first goes to market, the risk is to lose market share or probability of obtaining new market share. Usually, when time and money are constrained, the only way to negotiate is on scope and quality. A focus on priority of scope and quality is critical for innovative solutions.


“Better, faster, cheaper.” Every executive in the world wants the triple constraint; however, most innovation programs are under-funded, although there is more need now for innovation programs based on market conditions. Finding ways to channel new ideas into innovation programs at minimal cost is a good way to get the start-up costs down. The challenge of keeping costs low while building your pilot program remains. Investments in test environments or “innovation labs” can also help keep costs down for innovation programs. Engaging the right resources, at the right time, can help keep costs down. Last, but not least, streamlining the process enables more work to move through the process, which also keeps costs down. The use of centralized documentation repositories like Microsoft SharePoint also streamlines communications and document management for teams working on innovation projects.


New and innovative ideas can be a challenge, due to the unknowns. Sometimes, complexity is the problem as teams work with new and disruptive technologies. Any new idea will have these unknowns; thus, effort can be impacted when resources working on the project encounter an unknown. Spending time with lessons learned from similar technologies, training in new technologies, and agile-based story development can help reduce the risk. Ultimately, effective and timely risk management helps to counter the risk of effort taking longer than estimated for disruptive and innovative projects.


Ideas can come from anywhere and do not cost anything. Thus, a good innovation program can work with every resource in the company as an “idea factory” to bring ideas to the innovation program. Companies today are challenged with highly matrixed organizations. Resources are shared between operations and project-based work in many cases. Innovation programs experience a lack of resources available to them to help implement new ideas without dedicated funding for specific, project-based resources. When new resources are funded and on-board for a new innovation project, the training and education of the new hire within the organization can take a long period of time before being truly productive on a project team. What seems to work best for organizations is having project-based resources available on staff to work on innovation programs and projects. This group keeps up on the new and innovative market trends in partnership with innovation forums and serves as the project team for sponsored and approved innovation projects. Having dedicated and trained resources available enables the innovation project to be successful and enables an innovation program to have access to needed and skilled resources to continually bring new ideas to reality.


Communication methods used during projects with tight timelines (for new and innovative solutions that are considered more disruptive in nature) have cause for sensitivity to privacy and maintaining intellectual capital. Yet, they often use social media to create a buzz in the market around the new, disruptive product idea. Project managers also have the need to keep teams informed or involved throughout the project. We will consider strategies for inclusion of teams early in the process and communication tools to help realize goals for innovation teams.

Get in Touch With the “Entrepreneur” in You

Entrepreneur to Intrapreneur (Klaschka, 2012)—this is the transition a project manager makes as he or she becomes engaged with innovative and disruptive projects. Intrapreneurs are people within a corporation who work to take ideas to reality. These projects work like a start-up in some cases, with extreme interest in speed to market as new ideas go to market quicker than ever. How do you create the leading edge process and methodology for your team? We start with the basics from the Project Management Institute, as the Knowledge Areas remain consistent (2013). We are not here to change basic project management methodologies. We are looking to disrupt the way we conduct project management for innovation programs to incorporate the needs into the life cycle.

It takes an engaging and unique approach to engage employees in ways to bring about innovation and new ideas in an organization. The project manager working with innovation programs is needed to inspire the workforce and support employee enablement. The intrapreneur unlocks innovative integrations and business models, and proposes change. The intrapreneur builds networks and alliances to help in actively moving the organization toward its business goals.

How can you make changes in your environment to bring more entrepreneurial skills to your innovation programs? Do you have the executive support you need? Do you have innovation platforms and environments? Do you have a culture supporting ideation and change? What is within your span of control to help move from project manager to intrapreneur?

Agile “Mix”—Speed Versus Quality

Based on the inputs from the market with innovation market leaders, this leads into a discussion of how to address the specific challenges using a combination of agile and more traditional methods to take the new idea to market, based on the business case itself. We look at references of using agile methodology compared to waterfall, with the required mix of “gate reviews” for funding cycles. Knowing innovation projects have unique requirements with extreme risk, due to the triple constraint set in the business case, the volunteer team phases references to continue the conversation for the group.

IT projects typically use either a form of waterfall or agile methodologies. Waterfall is highly structured and can easily integrate with Six Sigma gating procedures for key decisions. Agile brings the ability for teams to work more iteratively. Ultimately, what we need to consider is a blend of methodologies combined with an environment, which supports innovation.


Waterfall is a linear approach to software development. Each phase in the waterfall approach represents a distinct stage of development and each stage finishes before the next one can begin as shown in Exhibit 1. There is typically a stage gate between each; for example, requirements must be reviewed and approved by the customer before design can begin. This approach works best when multiple systems may be involved and there is a need for integration with other systems. Problems in working with the waterfall approach on innovation projects include speed to market and lower customer satisfaction. The customer is not as engaged, and the period of time to market is much greater than more iterative methods.


Exhibit 1: Waterfall and systems development life cycle (U.S. House of Representatives, 1999).


Agile serves as a more iterative, team-based approach to development. Shown in Exhibit 2, this approach emphasizes the rapid delivery in completion of functional components. Rather than creating tasks and schedules, all time is “time-boxed” into phases called “sprints.” Each sprint has a defined duration (short periods of time, in weeks) with a running list of prioritized deliverables. Priority is set by business value, as determined by the customer. If all planned work for the sprint cannot be completed, work is reprioritized and the information is used for future sprint planning.

As work is completed during each sprint, it is continuously reviewed and evaluated by the customer, who may be considered the most critical member of the agile team. As a result, agile relies on a very high level of customer involvement throughout the project.


Exhibit 2: Agile methodology (Agile Alliance, 2013).

For innovation programs and disruptive ideas, companies have found a blend of these methods to work best for taking innovations to reality. Considering the unique challenges for these types of projects, the flow of work follows standards set by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (Project Management Institute, 2013), yet is tailored to the unique type of project for the development methodology.

Innovation Blend

Innovation programs have utilized a movement to prototyping combining initial gate reviews for funding approvals combined with agile methods to develop the initial product quicker (Exhibit 3). It is not a traditional agile approach, as the full product will be launched once complete, allowing the market to use the product/service once the prototype is complete. We move through the same phases of work, yet leverage the innovation labs to prototype the initial solution. Releases are managed using the agile approach for ongoing release management.


Exhibit 3: Innovation blend.

Innovation Environment

An investment in innovation environments is needed to support innovation programs. Companies need to add pilot environments or “innovation labs” to their infrastructure environments to enable development of new and disruptive technologies. The absence of such an environment hinders creativity and testing capabilities across the organization. Adding this to the IT structure opens the door for new ideas to take flight by offering up the technology support for innovation. Consider mirroring the cloud capability in the case that the product or service can be offered as a cloud-based solution.

Communication Strategies

Communication methods during projects with tight timelines for new and innovative solutions (considered more disruptive in nature) have cause for sensitivity to privacy and maintaining intellectual capital, yet use social media to create a buzz in the market around the new disruptive product idea. Project managers also have the need to keep teams informed or involved throughout the project. We will consider strategies for inclusion of teams early in the process, and communication tools to help realize goals for innovation teams.

Communication Strategies

Consider communications, which include full team participation during the life cycle of the project, with daily meetings during the initiation phase to get to the solution defined and prioritized quickly. Set up a weekly and monthly meeting rhythm for your teams based on roles. At a minimum, consider the following:

  • Daily, for the active development team;
  • Weekly, for the core team, including the customer; and
  • Bi-weekly, for the steering committee to include sponsors of the program.

Innovation Communication Tools

Communication methods used during projects with tight timelines (for new and innovative solutions considered more disruptive in nature) have cause for sensitivity to privacy and maintaining intellectual capital, yet use social media to create a buzz in the market around the new disruptive product idea. Project managers also have the need to keep teams informed or involved throughout the project. We will consider strategies for inclusion of teams early in the process, and communication tools to help realize goals for innovation teams.

  • Intellectual Capital Tools and Resources – Ensure you have legal counsel involved during the life cycle of innovation programs to help identify opportunities for patent submissions. Ensure patent filings follow legal documentation and communication standards.
  • Security – Include security to ensure that data and innovation ideas are protected.
  • Documentation Repository – Utilize protected SharePoint sites or similar technologies to house team documentation for easy access, while still maintaining adequate, role-based security permissions management.
  • Project Management Tools – Utilize a standard project management toolkit. Leverage an agile product line to manage sprints, stories, and Scrum sessions. Burn down charts are still good to use for agile and Microsoft Project and can also be used to manage workloads. For prototyping, Microsoft Project still works best to build the critical path and better manage the risk along the way.
  • Innovation Forums – Tools like MindJet, Yammer, and so forth offer good ways to integrate with SharePoint to collect ideas, evaluate ideas, and prioritize ideas with direct connection to the project management life cycle within your company. This type of tool set brings ideas and projects together to better share information from project initiation through to closure.


We conclude innovation programs and disruptive ideas bring a unique set of challenges in today's market. Project managers can excel in managing these efforts by incorporating lessons learned from companies with experience in innovation programs, tapping into their entrepreneurial spirit, mixing the best of available methodologies to maximize delivery results, and enabling team success through slightly modified communications.

Agile Alliance. (2013). Guide to agile practices. Portland, OR: Author.

Klaschka, S. (2012, March 27). The rise of the intrapreneur. Retrieved from OrgChanger.com

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

U.S. House of Representatives. (1999). Systems development life-cycle policy.

von Dyck, P. (2015, March 3). Overcoming the challenges to successful open innovation. Retrieved from InnovationManagement.se

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© 2015, Pamela Stevenson, PMP
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA




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