Creative Problem Solving (CPS)

Seven Essentials of an Effective Innovation Project Manager

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Outsourcing innovation project management might be the most strategic money you spend this year.

It’s not a new idea but it’s one more companies should consider. It sure beats doing nothing. See my Seven Essentials for hiring below. But first:

If you’ve not got an innovation plan in the process of being executed, right now, you are treading water and will eventually drown.

So what’s stopping you from kicking off an innovation initiative?

I often hear resources.

What I hear from top management: “we don’t have the time or resources for innovation projects, we’ll start later this year.” I get it. How is it possible to do this separate thing that requires it’s own focus and resources while keeping the machine of your business running? It is difficult, a bit like replacing a moving flywheel. Innovation should be part of day to day operational business process but making it so, if it’s not now, is difficult. Innovation feels like extra work to operationally focused people. Cultural shift is hard, and can only be done by doing.

Top managers know that without innovation eventually they’ll be in trouble.  They know that they have to get projects underway, and managed efficiently, in order to fill the new product pipeline.

One solution, not a new one, is to outsource innovation project management. Or, even strategic bits.

Let’s remember that until a new concept reaches engineering and the later stages of the stage-gate process, innovation is relatively inexpensive. Investment in the front end, that is, keeping that process spinning, and keeping that pipeline filled, is money well spent.

Let’s talk about time. The truth is everyone, at all levels of a corporation, has some time to devote to innovation. What’s tougher to do is dedicate a person, or a team, to innovation exclusively (or mostly). Any exclusive FTE dedication to innovation is quite an investment. Depending on your size, even one is quite costly. But without leadership those precious chunks of time available to do innovation will go unused.

So, the solution is to hire somebody, yes, a consultant. Somebody that helps you keep the FEI flywheel spinning. An expense yes, but not as expensive as a dedicated FTE or three. Consultants are expensive but they are also a bargain if you consider you don’t pay them benefits, and you use them only as absolutely needed. Harder to measure but probably a bigger cost is the lost opportunity your organization misses when you get beat to market by your competition. Or when you have an idea that would open a whole new market and set your companies future for years to come. What’s that cost?

The talent you need to keep the FEI flywheel spinning is available, choose wisely, see my Seven Essentials below.

Orchestrating a front-end-of-innovation project is mostly about facilitation and coordination. It’s about managing the front end cycle. The manager of an innovation project develops focus to an initiative, sets up meetings, gets consensus around direction, design virtual and real-time ideation sessions, conducts research, assists with converging on the best few bets, writes concepts, and sets up pitch presentations with the decision makers. That’s important momentum-preserving work. The key is maintaining forward motion and not wasting time. Internal innovation project managers often fall prey to the current emergency, whereas an outsider keeps working through the emergency.

Having said that the talent is out there, of course, you need to find someone who’s the right fit. This person is a strategic innovation resource and needs to have some specific skills.

Here are the Seven Essentials of an Effective Innovation Project Manager:

  1. Someone who understands, intimately, the theory and practice of innovation process.  Someone who has done it before, and has experience as an innovation insider, an outsider, preferably both. If you’ve only worked for a consultancy there are aspects of the real world you won’t understand or know how to manage. If you’ve only worked for one company you might be married to a way of doing things that isn’t very flexible. What framework do they use? How do they aid and abet teams?
  2. Someone who is adept at cutting through corporate red tape. Even with a mandate innovation projects are like herding cats. You need someone who can keep it moving with both carrots and sticks. Someone who is not afraid to bang on the CEO’s door if necessary. And then communicate effectively once inside the C-Suite.
  3. Someone who has a lot of focused energy. There is no substitute for enthusiasm, it’s infectious, and you need an infector. Frankly you need a bit of a nudge sometimes to get people to do what they say they’re going to do.
  4. Someone who has an extensive outside network of resources. One of the reasons you bring in an outsider is access to their fresh perspective, and the fresh perspectives of their networks. The right resource at the right moment goes a long way to keeping an innovation project on track. This might be the hardest thing for an internal person to do well; they simply don’t have time to develop those networks and resources.
  5. Someone with senior level expertise. This is a bit like #1, but with a twist. It’s easy to hire a big firm like IDEO or WhatIf? — what you won’t get, consistently, with those firms are senior people. It feels safer to hire a big firm but it really isn’t. Sometimes those who know theory are unable to execute in reality, even with big time support. Yes, they can bring in a SWAT team if a project is in trouble, but you pay for that. Single person consultancies or boutique consultancies are often a much better value.
  6. Someone who is a skilled facilitator. This means someone who knows how to design a project and who can inspire with surprising stimuli and interesting process at all stages of the process. Skilled facilitators usually have some grey hair. Related to this, you want someone who trains people in how to be more self-sufficient in innovation as a project unfolds.
  7. Someone who isn’t afraid to champion a promising project with risk. Insiders often avoid taking risky positions for fear of losing their jobs. One of the values of an outsider is someone who can help give your insiders courage when something really promising comes along.

If you’re treading water with regard to innovation, why not bring in a strategic resource? When you review your innovation progress in December 2015 you won’t regret it.

Obviously, this is what I do so call me if you want to discuss. If I can’t help you — I have a Rolodex of people who can.

 

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