When I talk to students about the many ways that project management shapes how companies innovate, I like to draw a parallel to one of the most innovative entities that’s ever existed, Bell Laboratories, often referred to as “The Idea Factory.”
Starting in the late 1800s, creative solutions to technological, communications, and even medical problems have poured out from the lab as fast as Nobel Prizes have poured in: It’s credited with the laser, radio astronomy, and the transistor, among countless other inventions.
Why is it important? Bell Labs’ leadership purposefully set about to create an innovative organization. They did this by creating a framework in which innovation could thrive. One example is the design of its Holmdel Complex in New Jersey: The physical space was engineered to force employees who wouldn’t normally see one another to interact. A great deal of its innovation is attributed to such intentional efforts to support innovation. The question is, ‘If architectural principals can be a framework to shift a work environment toward innovation, how can project management provide a framework in which fresh ideas emerge?’
1. Non-linear communication.
Just like Bell Lab’s physical design strategy, you can design a project management plan to “force” stakeholders who usually get involved at different points in a project to interact at the start. For example, when I built houses, I pulled together reps from different crews, like carpenters and dry-wall contractors. We discovered all kinds of ways that one team’s work affects the work of people down the line by having them interact.
2. Back to business.
If you’re managing an especially innovative project, you need to repeatedly come back to your business case, which is the justification for doing the project. What value does it deliver to the organization, exactly? Good project management plans take into account the changing nature of an innovative idea, which is usually unformed at first. As details of the project form, you need to revisit the basic question: Does this plan still deliver the business case?
3. Sticking to the scope.
You’d think that by ensuring that your project stays within its scope, you might inadvertently squelch innovative ideas that fall out of its structure. Actually, checking work against the project’s scope forces participants to innovate by coming up with creative solutions that directly pertain to the business case.
4. Efficiency = innovation.
Similarly, we tend to think of “process” as a bad word that hinders creativity. In fact, setting streamlined principles in place frees up staff’s innovative capacity. Processes save people from having to relearn how to do something that’s already been figured out. And when you ensure that a project stays on track, you allow people to brainstorm other innovative ideas.
5. Success begets success.
Project managers are problem-solvers. By taking on a project-oriented and innovation-friendly framework like the one at Bell Labs, you attract employees who are drawn to cultures that support innovation. What’s more, you’re able to recruit other problem-solving project managers who can create further opportunities for innovation.