Project Management Institute

Innovation to Deliver Value

Transcript

JOE CAHILL

Hi everybody, my name is Joe Cahill, I’m the COO of the Project Management Institute, PMI, and we are back after a break from season one of the Center Stage podcast. So, welcome everybody back to now season two of the Center Stage podcast.

Today we have with us David Dabscheck. David is with us and he is a Founder and CEO of a company called GIANT Innovation. And GIANT transforms the way organizations and people think and act to become world-class innovators. So David has seen hundreds of innovation projects and workshops with big companies and leading organizations around the world, including Citi Corp and Exxon Mobil, Roche, Columbia University and Siemens Energy.

He is also a board member for several Israeli and New York-based technology companies. A tech and a social innovation entrepreneur is what David is. So, really exciting to have him here today.

David, you told me you’re an Aussie by birth and we want to welcome you here today to Center Stage.

DAVID DABSCHECK

Thank you so much, I’m really glad to be here, Joe.

CAHILL

David, as we stated on the top here, you’re the CEO and Founder of GIANT Innovation. In your role, you’ve helped many large organizations and some in the most traditional and regulated industries to become more innovative and creative and agile. I just want to start today with some foundational questions and the most obvious one is, how do you define innovation?

DABSCHECK

That is a fantastic question. I mean, I have small kids and I’ve been reading actually a bit of Lewis Carroll and I don’t know if you’re familiar with it but there is this wonderful scene when Alice is arguing with Humpty-Dumpty and they’re talking about semantics and the meaning of words and Humpty-Dumpty says, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.”

And I think innovation is a bit of a Humpty-Dumpty word. Some people use it and some leaders particularly as a synonym for, I don’t know, technology, for maybe effectiveness, positive change, and I think it’s used for so many things, it’s defined so many ways, you’ve said, it becomes meaningless. It is totally Humpty-Dumpty. So I like to define innovation simply, but I think very clearly, as something new plus something useful. So that’s something new plus something useful.

CAHILL

New and useful.

DABSCHECK

Yes, exactly, new and useful. And I think why that is helpful... it kind of opens up what we mean by innovation. So in two ways - if you think about something new, like, yes, of course innovation is about creativity but I think a lot of people just stop there. And innovation is not the same as creativity. It’s not about just sitting on a bean bag, coming up with a new idea or a new technology. I would argue that you also need that useful part. It has to be useful to some customer group. And if you don’t have that then you don’t have innovation, I think you just have novelty.

And then maybe in another sense it’s also this question about technology. Obviously, as you mentioned, I was a former tech start-up entrepreneur. I love technology, a great enabler, but again that is so limiting about innovation. And I think talking about something new and useful, it opens up who can do innovation.

It’s not just about products or new products, services, business models, but also if you’re a project manager working internally, you’re a finance, a procurement person, you’re internal facing. I mean, maybe you’re not the finance person, maybe you don’t want some creative accounting, but I really do believe seriously that this is something that everybody can bring to their roles and to their jobs.

CAHILL

Implied in the word ‘useful’ is value. Would you agree that it’s still to bring some value?

DABSCHECK

Exactly. Delivering value. And I would say delivering value to customers, some sort of customers.

CAHILL

Because that’s the language we use at PMI. I’m just connecting it through to some of the language we use. So it’s one and the same, which is great.

Let’s move to a larger point of view. How do more traditional large companies, the companies you work with, how do they organize their innovation functions and how do they execute innovation in terms of getting outcomes?

DABSCHECK

So another good question. Because if you think from that basis, so we’re trying to get something new and useful at all different levels, all the way through a company, I tend to find organizations and executives in particular, they’re very willing to invest money into the latest technology - blockchain, machine learning, fill in whatever buzzword you want there - and at least until the pandemic in some cool, new office space.

But what I don’t think they’re organizing and what people are not looking at is in terms of investing in people. So how do you help people and give them the skills and mindsets to be new and useful? And if you don’t mind, I’ll just tell you a quick anecdote that I think illustrates what I’m talking about better than I can explain it.

In the early days of GIANT, I remember there was this Fortune 500 company, they asked us to do this sort of innovation audit. And so I turn up and I’m interviewing this executive and I say tell me about how do you structure innovation. And they said, let me take you to our innovation room. So they take me to this room and it’s super cool, it’s got bean bags and it’s got words on the wall like fun, adventure, test. And the latest technology, it’s got a maker bot in the corner, everything you can want. And he’s like, this is where we do innovation. I was like, wow, that’s pretty impressive.

And so we go through the interviews, everyone has mentioned this innovation room. I finish for the day, I happen to be walking out of the building, I walk past the innovation room, so I thought well let’s just pop in and see what’s going on. And there’s an employee there, average employee, so I say to her, tell me what do you think about the innovation room? And she says, and I quote, “It’s fantastic, I love the innovation room. Any time I want to get away from people, I come here, no one is ever here.” [laughter]

And so the point I’m trying to say is again, I have nothing against technology or a cool space but... and I think the pandemic really showed us, if you’re not investing in people, allowing them to do something new and useful, all the rest will fall apart.

CAHILL

Excellent. So in that vein, and in this broader conversation about innovation, can you share with us one of your favorite innovation stories?

DABSCHECK

One that I often talk about... and if you don’t mind, Joe, I don’t want to turn the tables but I can maybe ask a question to you or to people listening.

CAHILL

Mhm.

DABSCHECK

I’ll ask you a few questions about this product and see if you can guess what the product is. So again, also from the 19th Century, it was invented in the 19th Century, it was originally invented as a powerful surgical antiseptic. Any guesses there, what do you think? A product from the 19th Century, antiseptic. It was then later sold as a floor cleaner and, interestingly enough, a cure for gonorrhea.

CAHILL

Oh geez.

DABSCHECK

I don’t know if anyone’s thinking there... so yeah, no value judgements.

CAHILL

A multi-faceted product.

DABSCHECK

It didn’t work, people didn’t buy this to cure gonorrhea or to clean their floors. It was kind of a failure. But then later and today it’s a very successful as a mouthwash to kill germs that cause bad breath. And so now you can probably guess, I’m thinking about Listerine. So Listerine, a hugely successful product, but that is actually how it started. It was, as an antiseptic it didn’t work very well.

And there’s a legion of similar examples around innovation. And the point that I think this tells us is that there is a myth that there is a perfect idea and if we can only find out what that idea is, we’re going to be successful. And it’s simply not true. I’ve been involved in so many ventures and I think the real story is innovation. If you can accelerate that learning from the first idea through all the necessary iterations till you get that successful idea, that’s what you need to do. There’s not going to be a perfect idea in the sky that never changes. It just doesn’t exist.

CAHILL

It’s interesting because you have a background in startups and I’ve done three startups as well and one of the things I did learn through that experience was all that learning, the value of that… So the time that is spent learning things, failing, tweaking, innovating in the case of this conversation, is worth a tremendous amount of money and value in terms of when companies are being evaluated. And starting over and failing and making the same failures that someone else did is just pointless. Right? Time and the failure rate, as you’re pointing out, is very, very important in the value of a company.

DABSCHECK

Exactly. And I think that learning rate... You want to accelerate it but not accelerate to the point where it’s just you’re ticking off the box. I think that perfectly encapsulates what we’re talking about, whether it’s a startup or a large organization.

CAHILL

Of course. So let me ask you, on a broader view in terms of your point of view of what the macro issues are that innovators are facing right now in the world and looking out a little bit, what are the trends that you’re seeing? Tell me a little bit about the second wave of innovation. I think people would be really interested in your point of view there.

DABSCHECK

One of the interesting trends I see is that the debate of whether innovation is needed or not, that its over in that we have processes to help us. I think most organizations will point proudly to say, look, this is where we’re doing innovation and they put it on their website and they might even drop in the lingo or the buzzwords and they say we have agile, we have design thinking, customer centricity, etcetera, etcetera.

So that baseline of sophistication, what I think we call the first wave innovation, that is done. And it didn’t exist ten years ago. And I think that’s great. That’s really good. People have that sophistication. But as you know, the rap legend Biggie might have said it’s more innovation, more problems. Most importantly, and another way of saying this is a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

And there’s a well-known cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect and it’s where people overestimate their abilities and where they have a basic level of knowledge but they consider themselves experts. I know we’re in the election season now so I won’t... we won’t digress into the election, I think you see that a lot about people talking about politics. But it is the same thing in innovation. And this is dangerous I think because it not only means you’re more likely to fail, but it will reinforce the notion for those that are resistant to the innovation that the whole thing is basically BS and just window dressing.

So I’ll give you another example of this. So one Fortune 500 Company that we met with, they sent me their innovation deck and process before we met and it all talked about innovation, you know, it had all the right words. It said we’re using design sprints, everything is a sprint, we work in sprints, and we test using MVP. So for people not familiar, they’re minimum viable products, quick tests, a representation of your concept to learn.

And so then I sat down with them and I’m like, so if you’re doing all this, why are we meeting? What are we talking about? And then they explained to me,  well, we say design sprints but they’re just really the meetings we all have. And we have MVPs but it’s really still the 18-month process that it takes us to test and roll something out. So in other words, they were using the innovation terms but it was basically describing what was business as usual.

So what you’re really creating is a recipe for disappointment and cynicism, quite rightly, across other people in the organization. Or, what you also have, which I think can also be a problem, is people are using innovation in an organization but using it in different ways and the language means different things. And that little language inconsistency can also be a big barrier. So if you put this all together, and you said it before, we like to say, look, we’ve ridden that first wave of innovation, people accept to some degree - most executives, leaders - accept innovation and the second wave, what that is about is how do we build a sophisticated, sustainable program.

 So that’s why to me what I try to be laser focused at in our work is how do you think about capacity and capacity building? Because if you’re serious about this you cannot rely upon consultants to fish innovation for you. It’s the whole idea… you’ve got to build that innovation tackle box for yourself.

CAHILL

Indeed. So we serve the project management profession as you know and we serve agilests and frankly, anybody that’s really engaged in change initiatives, or a change maker, if you will. There are certain things that don’t change in the world, right? You have a project, you’re trying to execute a project, you still have fixed budgets and time frames and so forth that you have to operate within. So you always have to balance some things.

You have to balance, in this case in innovation, you have to balance what you’re innovating. You have to balance that with scaling that innovation and then also kind of delivering on these low-cost failures that are very critical in order to execute innovation and have learning within your organization. So just within that context help us understand what innovation means for leaders and stakeholders that are really pushing and leading major projects.

DABSCHECK

Yeah, you said a lot of interesting things and important things and I want to highlight around innovation. And you talked about it before, again, that whole low-cost failure for learning. Especially if you’re doing a project, a major project, how do we think about experimentation and failures?

And I think this gets back to what I said before about that sophistication of innovation. That is, most organizations, and I would imagine even in those sophisticated projects, they would say oh yeah, of course we agree with you, we need to have failure, we need to learn from that, not a question, of course, yes. But if you scratch the surface a little bit I think it tends to be a bit superficial. And so almost invariably, organizations - and I would say project managers particularly, just because of the nature of that work that you talked about and those constraints - tend to dramatically underestimate the level of innovation that you need to drive innovation.

So let me give you actually a non-business example, which hopefully maybe will reframe how we think about failure. I just saw this on television the other night, it’s about lions. So lions, king of the jungle, the apex predator, top of the food chain, somebody that is really good at what they do. So what is interesting is that they are only successful 25 percent of the time they hunt. So think about that, a 75-percent failure rate for an animal that has evolved over thousands of years to be this perfect killing machine.

So if most innovation groups or project managers had a 75-percent failure rate, they’d be fired on the spot, I would imagine. Why I get excited by this and what this means is because I think this is relates back to what we were talking about before about what does it mean to have a great idea. And people tend to think we have... great innovators have one perfect idea. But again, I think what we have seen, and it’s true again in the research and the experience, is that concept quantity is tied to concept quality. So if you think about that, the great innovators, you can drop all the famous names, were also the most prolific and most of those things didn’t work.

So again, I’ll throw out a few names and hopefully this is of surprise to people. Take Albert Einstein, in his life wrote over 250 scientific papers. Most of those papers today are not cited. There’s a few famous ones, the rest are forgotten. Same with Bach, over 600 compositions. Maybe people listen to a quarter of what he composed. Richard Branson came up with over 150 companies, most of them went bankrupt.

CAHILL

Yes so there’s definitely a portfolio notion in there that you can’t place all your bets on one thing.  You have to have a number of ideas in this case that are working through the project in order to really get to the outcomes that are needed. So our project managers definitely have a familiarity with and practice this portfolio management idea. I’m just trying to tie it to our language.

DABSCHECK

Yes.

CAHILL

So that’s really good. Let me ask you about just your business and your innovation and your... how you’ve started up different ventures along the way. But you are the CEO of GIANT Innovation, you teach practitioners, executives, companies how to innovate. So what led you to start GIANT?

DABSCHECK

It seems a long time ago, maybe not that long ago, back in 2014, and I think looking back on it now there was a gap that bothered me. And it was all those things you’re talking about. Executives were increasingly talking about innovation and so you had an increasing number of consultants meeting that need saying we can innovate for you. But as somebody that had been in the trenches and as I know you’ve been in the trenches and seen something similar, I felt if companies were serious about innovation then they need to at least bring some of those skills and mindsets into their organization and do the work for themselves.

CAHILL

So that’s very important enablement, right? So the enablement not just for a person that sees themselves in the mirror as an innovator but to the broader team within an organization to have that mindset, right? So it gets me into thinking about how do you teach innovation?  How does that happen and how do you make it consumable to folks that wouldn’t otherwise say that they need to innovate or that they are an innovator?

DABSCHECK

That I think is the key question. Let me unpack a few things there. Most people that think they’re not innovators, that is very true and I think to deal with that is one, what we talked about before, expanding what we mean by the definition of innovation, it’s not just about technology, it’s not just for R&D, and it’s also how we do a few things. You want to stay away from the jargon or that there is one true innovation methodology.

I think if you think about innovation and what you need to get across to people, it’s pretty simple. I mean, whatever process you use is basically three steps. One, how do you find an opportunity, an opportunity particularly around customer needs? Two, how do you come up with a creative idea that’s novel to that opportunity, and then three, how would you test and learn to build confidence in that idea.

So the question is, how do you take that process and give people the skills that is flexible and organic to them in their industry and in their organizational culture? And project management is a perfect example of this. What makes sense for project managers is not the same as what makes sense for people building apps in Silicon Valley, et cetera, right? It’s got to work for them and those principles have to be adapted.

So I think there’s a whole range of skills that I think would be important but I will just focus on one. Because I often get the question or we get this from organizations, look, we don’t have time to do everything, what is the one thing you can teach us to do or that we should do? And to me, and it has come up before, but it is that whole thing about customer centricity and understanding customer needs.

People are very comfortable now saying, oh yeah, we’re customer centric. And to me it’s kind of like Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. Nobody has actually ever seen it, everyone talks about it but no one has seen it. And it’s kind of like the existence is probably more wishful thinking than it actually exists, but we say we’re customer centric.

So I think the skills around that and particularly what are the skills that really help you to be customer centric is really around let’s say customer interviewing, understanding the needs, how do you speak to a customer… And again, I’m not saying the people out there, maybe your end users, your customers - and I think for project managers this is key - are internal people.

We like to say everyone has a customer. So if you’re delivering that project to someone else in the company, they are your customers and before you start on that solution you should have the skills, and particularly around customer interviewing, understanding needs, there’s also a framework, which we won’t go into now, called jobs to be done, which can be very powerful. Like, what is the problem they need and then the solution should then be built upon that, not the other way around, Which a lot of people, obviously technical people particularly -  I have a great solution, let me go and sell this.

So that is again I think really the key thing. And what I think is interesting about this and we talked about it before –

CAHILL

Yes, so I’m hearing in your answer there in terms of the skills, some things that we talk to our stakeholders about. So, really related to your customer centricity point, we tell our stakeholders about having empathy for the customer. So it’s a similar concept. And when we approach our stakeholders with our approach to agility, which is Disciplined Agile, we really emphasize that there is a choice that they make on their way of working, which it sounds like you’re saying the same, a similar thing, that not all situations are equal, right? So you have to apply your context. So I think there is definitely agreement there in terms of what we tell our folks as well.

So, you just started into this questioning and conversation aspect of what your work emphasizes. What are the ways to generate the best questions? What kind of tips for developing these skills, people conducting really good, innovative conversations?

DABSCHECK

So if you don’t mind, I might respond to your question about questions with another question. I read about this British survey about questions kids ask. And basically what they tried to find out is how many questions do kids ask and when does that peak. And so I don’t know if you want to take a guess. At what age and gender do people ask the most number of questions?

CAHILL

I don’t know, three? What do you think...?

DABSCHECK

Yeah so very good, it’s four. In boys or girls?

CAHILL

Four... girls.

DABSCHECK

Yes. According to the survey, four-year-old girls ask on average 350 questions. So think about that, that is... And again, most of them… why is the sky blue and... And we all kind of... and I have a three-year-old girl who is getting close to that number. We kind of laugh about it but if we think about that, it’s so powerful, right, the idea of just asking questions and keeping that open mindset.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that... So if you think also about creativity tests, which have a very similar trajectory, that is… we have been doing these things for decades and you see young kids do very well and as you get older, for most people those abilities, creative abilities, decline as they enter adulthood. And I think there is a direct relation there about questioning, curiosity, and creativity and innovation.

And so fundamentally what we’re saying is it’s not just having a killer question, it’s getting the mindset that questioning and curiosity… and it’s what we talked about before about interviewing, just being interested in other people with different experiences, like, that is what you need to create and innovate. You want to be Indiana Jones. And by that I don’t mean steal artifacts from exotic locations or anything like that but be an anthropologist in how you approach things.

And if you think... and I think project managers particularly need this skill and you see it in large organizations is that you have these kind of silos obviously that are created to perform tasks, which makes sense, but then as they spiral into these edifices that are alien to the outsiders or not welcoming to outsiders, it becomes problematic. So if you have that  mindset we talked about, that you want to be curious, you want to ask questions, just think about the other that’s very different to you and why they do something, like, that to me is the first step, to have a question.

So you’re not thinking, why is compliance giving me all this paperwork? These are just idiots that don’t get it, take your pick about who those idiots are. It’s saying, well, what’s behind this and then let’s dig into it and ask why and understand why. And then that motivation is to me... that is what opens up the innovative conversations you were talking about.

CAHILL

I can tell you that that is true for me, or at least it resonates with me. When you start having a team that thinks that way and engages in a conversation that way you definitely find, you find new things and new approaches and something that wasn’t even there when you start the conversation. And I think that is the essence of strong teams, project teams in the case of our guys.

There are skills involved here, right? You don’t just wake up and have the capability of doing all these things. So what have you seen in terms of the best organizations out there, what are they doing in terms of predicting the capabilities that are needed in the future and what does your work provide in terms of insight into what those skills are that are essential for the future?

DABSCHECK

I’m not sure, I think it’s a Danish proverb or something, the whole idea of its difficult to make predictions especially about the future, as they say. Obviously that’s hard to know exactly but I think building upon the themes we’ve talked about, there are a few things that are clear. So that customer centricity that we talked about, I would say that is number one, two and three. But then not just talking about it, again, not making it the Loch Ness Monster that doesn’t exist except in fables, but how do you do that and everything around that? To me, if you can do that, that is a win.

And then the natural extension from that is, again, some of the things we talked about before, how do we be more creative and then how do we get test-and-learn cycles to work more efficiently.

CAHILL

Excellent. PMI has traditionally, for 50 years, been really focused on supporting standards of project management, professionalism, knowledge for the practitioners across programs and projects. More recently we have gotten into the agility and hybrid ways of working and we are expanding into even broader ways of working for more people even beyond project managers. So, what should PMI be doing related to innovation in both a business and a social sense?

DABSCHECK

From our conversation, the ethos of PMI is very similar to everything we’re talking about. So empathy is the basis of customer centricity, test and learn... And so I think the question... and I wouldn’t be so self-assured that I know the answer to this, but I think the question for PMI that I would be asking is how do we empower and unleash the potential of those project-based professionals and make innovation skills just skills.

So I’ll tell you maybe what I mean by that. I think if you look back in the 1980s, you have this thing, like IT and these computers and it was this new thing and we had to have all these specialists dealing with IT. And now it’s just everybody is expected to have IT. We still have IT departments but they’re just skills, they’re not IT skills anymore, you have to have... you cannot function without them.

And I wonder for PMI, and I know all the things you’re talking, agile, as you move in that direction but what would it look like to break down those barriers around innovation and project management and just make that all one thing? How do we take the same position and what would that look like?

CAHILL

Right.

DABSCHECK

So maybe that’s an open question. How do we get people to make that sort of paradigm shift? That’s where I think might be interesting for PMI.

CAHILL

Yeah, we have actually, through our thought leadership and how we speak to our stakeholders, we have made it very clear how important an innovative mindset is for a project manager or an agilest. We talk about project management as a profession but it is a skill. And as the profession has gotten more and more successful, it has become more and more of a skill that, if you go the other way, that an innovator needs to have some project management skill just as a project manager needs to have innovative skills.

So we see how all these... we call them power skills, how they are all... they all have to be part of your toolkit as a project manager. You have to be innovative, you have to know your core project management skills, you have to have empathy for the customer, these are just some of the things that are just needed. Project managers and agilest are in the middle of change, they are in the middle of... they are in between an idea and reality.

So they are always... the people that are enabling that change, they’re part of that team and it’s usually cross-functional teams, it’s just not project managers, it’s people that are inventing things, people that are building code, people that are building bridges. It’s still getting something from an idea stage into reality. And I think innovation is at the core of that. It’s essential.

DABSCHECK

Yeah, no I love what you said. I think maybe that’s a call to action with project managers is that yes, they are building competency in this and obviously that’s the big work of PMI, but I think of the river... The more you talk about it and obviously I have seen the work that PMI does, the more, you know, the river flows in both directions.

I think project managers should be confident going out to innovation teams or innovation functions and saying hey, we know this but also you should be taking some of the skills that we do. And what does project management have, the value-add to innovation, which I think is tremendous. Because again, we need to have those sort of… that sort of mindset with all the things I’m talking about. So hopefully project managers cannot just learn from innovation but I’m sure teach innovation as well.

CAHILL

Right. And the blending of all those skills on a project team are essential for success, that’s the truth.

DABSCHECK

That’s why we say - and I think that’s what project managers do well - innovation is a team sport and who better to organize a team than a project manager.

CAHILL

Exactly. Thank you, David Dabscheck. I really appreciate the time you spent with us here today. The audience is certainly very appreciative, I’ll speak on their behalf in terms of your point of view on innovation and how it connects into our project management profession and the way we do things here at PMI.

I really look forward to working more with you in the future as we integrate things across different disciplines into our Knowledge Initiative. We actually pointed out here towards the end of the conversation how these are a very much related anyway and how they go both ways. I’m really excited about continuing the conversation going forward. So, thank you again and take care.