There’s a reason every company is so hyper-focused on innovation: Because when you get it right, it can provide the defining edge, the big idea that puts you over the top.
Bringing in the human centricity to the whole design process itself, I think that’s going to help us innovate and come up with creative solutions to the problems that we’re sensing right now.
The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.
This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.
Innovation is what separates the leaders from the laggards. It’s what transforms companies like Alibaba or Apple into the game-changing power players they are. Yet there’s no surefire path to that kind of breakthrough creative thinking.
That doesn’t keep organizations from trying, of course. And some have made significant strides in building cultures that spark innovation.
In fact, 7 in 10 project professionals say their organization invests in and rewards innovation, according to PMI’s new Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report called The Innovation Imperative. Still, though, they may be missing out when it comes to more proactive activities. Only 1 in 4 orgs required teams to dedicate time for innovative thinking and idea generation. Just 21 percent of project professionals were familiar with the concept of citizen development, and only 19 percent of organizations hosted a creativity lab or hackathon.
Today we’ll meet a couple of project leaders working to foster innovation within their companies and in very different industries: first software, which has built a rep for unconventional thinking and bleeding-edge ideas; and then construction, which is traditionally more cautious in its embrace of new ideas—for good reason, I might add, because there’s no equivalent of a post-release firmware upgrade for a skyscraper.
Our sponsor for this episode is PMTraining.com. From live, virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.
Now, let’s begin in Bengaluru, India, where Vidhya Abhijith is a co-founder of Codewave Technologies, which leads digital transformation projects for clients such as Microsoft and 3M. She’s also a member of PMI’s Future 50—a group of young project leaders making their mark with bold thinking and bold projects.
Vidhya told Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt why she believes design thinking and innovation are linked, and how teams looking to innovate need to focus on people.
What are some things project teams need in order to be innovative?
I think at the heart of it is to have an open mind and to be open to change. Adaptability and agility, demonstrating that through our day-to-day work. That’s core to how we are transforming as individuals, teams and as organizations and at large, as a civilization.
What are some ways that you think design thinking really helps spur innovation?
Design thinking is all about listening, I would say. It all comes down to how keenly, how sharply you can observe the user, observe your subject, mirror the state of mind of the subject and ask relevant questions.
To me, it all comes down to listening skills and mirroring skills. The art of empathizing with the other person’s context. It also requires you to vividly imagine the environment in which your subject operates, the environment in which the subject takes decisions, and also what drives human behavior? What drives your subject’s behavior in certain contexts, in certain environments?
How can project leaders innovate while still keeping the focus on delivering value to customers?
You have to be open to ideas coming from anywhere, from any stakeholder who is involved with the project. Ideas could come internally from the team or from the customer’s team or from the customer’s customers. It could also come in from a latest market announcement. So keeping our eyes open and keeping our minds open to learn from our everyday observations on the project.
What about team members? How can they push or encourage each other to workshop new ideas?
So we’ll have to look at how a team is formed, right? We have to start from the basics. How does your organization respond to demand? What is the first thing you do when you receive a market demand? The first thing often organizations do is put together a team.
Now, can we bring in more autonomy? Can we let teams form on their own? Can we take teams’ inputs on whom to onboard and whom do they think is best to productize that particular solution? Because we’re asking teams to be agile, we are asking individuals to be agile, so the rules need to change as well.
The managerial roles would have to take on the role of being a coach or a mentor who constantly observes the gaps within the team and also senses the needs and anxieties of people and give directions to lead them to collective outcomes.
So now the rules change, the way people put together the team changes. That’s how I think we can slowly nudge that innovation mindset. Be open to all the micro-decisions you make on the project, be it from team composition, team structure or dynamically changing the team composition on the go, as you deliver work.
Be open to have cross-functional roles, instead of people being confined and limited by the boundaries of their job descriptions and roles. I think also being open about role boundaries itself. The boundaries are blurring these days—having an engineer question the why and give us ideas on where a software could automate a process, or designers could think about the neuroscientific reasons why the consumer is behaving in certain ways. I think cross-functional roles and being open to it can also help.
In what industry do you think we’ll see the most innovation or disruption in the next five to 10 years?
I can see disruption happening in education, healthcare and also retail.
Right now, education is completely becoming online. There is e-learning and there is adaptive learning, which is education delivered with very high levels of learner-centricity. People can just learn online at their own pace.
Again, healthcare. A lot of healthcare is coming home. There is video consultations happening. So I think in every industry, there’s digitization happening at multiple levels, and this virtual experience of connecting with service providers is just changing the game for a whole lot of industries.
Retail. I can’t remember the last time I went to a store to buy something. I think COVID has changed a lot of consumer behaviors, and all of what we want from a retail store is all available at the doorstep, thanks to digitalization.
Thanks, Vidhya and Hannah. As I mentioned earlier, Vidhya is one of our Future 50, and we recently devoted an episode to that class of extraordinary folks—check it out at PMI.org/podcast.
Now let’s head to Toronto, Canada, where construction firm Pomerleau is relying on two internal innovation teams to drive its embrace of new technologies and out-of-the-box solutions. Yuri Bartzis is an innovation manager who oversees Pomerleau’s Canadian building operations unit.
Your organization has a team dedicated specifically to innovation. What ideas or solutions does the team look for? Are more people than just that specific team involved in innovation at Pomerleau?
Our innovation team is about 50 members, and we’re constantly doing research and development in different topics. We attend conferences and webinars, and always up to date with the newest technologies, not just within the construction sector, but also in other industries to see how that technology can be applied to the construction sector.
But we also have a project, it’s called the FOX project, the Foundation for Operational eXcellence. And this initiative is created as a structure for all of our Pomerleau employees to participate in innovation and innovating new work processes. People that are doing their jobs and are thinking, “There’s a better way to do it,” now we’ve provided them a platform to be able to suggest a new way of doing it and working together with a group of their peers to do just that—to develop a new process and make that a standard across the company.
Once you have that initial idea, we put together a team of Pomerleau employees from across the region, from across the country, to get varying experience and even varying skill levels. And this task group works together to develop a best practice that can be used and deployed across the company. The FOX initiative, having that as a structured platform for internal developments for anybody within Pomerleau, really opens the door for improvement and adaptation.
Let’s dig into that a little bit. With the FOX project, how do you evaluate different ideas? And how do you decide which solutions will work across the company?
We do have an executive committee that does review the different ideas that come into the FOX program. The idea goes through four steps of development.
There’s that definition stage, which is from that initial suggestion, a definition of how to solve that problem is created. Moves on to the development stage, and that’s where the larger group of multiple employees works together to develop what the new best practice would look like. And once that’s developed, a launch structure is created to try and test this idea on a construction project—usually piloted on one project, but some of our developments are piloted on multiple, just to give us a little bit of variety. There’s many different types of construction, many different size of project, which would create a varying degree of success.
Let’s talk about some of the current projects the innovation team is working on. Tell me about Spot, the robotic canine photographer.
Spot is an autonomous robot. We do have members in our team that can control the robot. But, essentially, this robot will walk around our construction site and take photos and even 3D scans of the site. We use that to monitor progress mainly to create a moment in time of when that Spot robot walked the site and to monitor how the construction site advances.
We did have a robotics research team within our innovation group, and through that research team we did identify Boston Dynamics as a potential partner to Pomerleau, and that relationship grew.
There are many unforeseen challenges with putting an autonomous robot into practice on a construction site. The industrialization of a construction site is clearly evident once you start mixing humans and robots, and that does have a somewhat negative connotation. But through education and even just time, becoming familiar with the robot, we’ve managed to move that into an area where we’re starting to see, and even members of the construction site are starting to see, how we can pull benefits from having a robot and having technology, different technologies, on that construction site.
We do have a member of the team that is learning how to use autonomous robots and making sure that the information that is being gathered from the site is being treated and used effectively for construction and for progress tracking. The Spot robot is really just an addition to the project team as a project member rather than replacing.
What are some strategies for organizations looking to put innovation at the forefront?
That is a great question, and it’s funny because it’s not the first time I’ve been asked that. I’ll frame it the way it’s asked usually whenever I’m speaking in public, is “How do I convince my manager to implement technology in construction?” And I think that’s the key is convincing the upper management, the managers and owners of companies to use the technology and do research and development into better ways of working.
At Pomerleau, the management team stands behind any innovation that comes out of our innovation team and really promotes the fact that innovation is a key to success. And I think that’s the key is to make sure that the management level, the executive team also has that knowledge and education to open their eyes to technology and see how effective it can be in regular work processes.
If you’d like to discover more about the state of innovation, head to PMI.org to read the Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report.
Innovation, by definition, is inevitably going to be a little inefficient. There’s no formula, process or algorithm that guarantees your efforts are going to be successful. But when you do hit on that big, new idea, the results can be transformative.
And as we’ve heard today, smart organizations are learning that they don’t just have to stand around hoping somebody thinks of something amazing; there are things companies can do to create an environment that nurtures creativity, and that helps ensure that when a big idea does emerge, it’s able to make its way forward.
Thanks again to our sponsor, PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.
Thanks for listening to Projectified®. If you like what you heard, please subscribe to the show. And leave a rating or review—we’d love your feedback. To hear more episodes of Projectified®, visit Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, Spotify or SoundCloud. Or head to PMI.org/podcast.