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Innovation is the new buzz word. Or hold on… maybe it’s always been that special buzz word that you reserve for clients and shareholders.

As a project manager, it is so easy to be bogged down by the short-term goals, tasks, schedules and the deadlines. Is it possible to not just keep your head above the waters but also to do it with style?

Let us look at innovation in Project Management from two angles – one at the firm level and the other at the project level.

Innovation at the firm level

At the firm level, it was always believed that smaller firms do better, especially start-ups where there is no red tape to restrict you and where there is a lot more freedom to toy around with ideas. With the exemplary success of firms like Google, you can safely say that this myth has been put to rest. Although Google innovated on the search space, when it was a smaller firm, its breakthrough in wearable computing and other fields like driverless cars and solutions towards health-care have happened when the company has reached a mammoth size.

Huge firms are trying to exploit what they have sufficiently – the money. This means they have more space to take risks and to fail and to pick themselves up again. They also invest in the best talent available.
Sometimes, they also opt for the easier way, which is to scout for small firms that have come up with a killer idea and acquire or collaborate with them. However, there are also efforts to create leaner teams within the organisation which would help foster new ideas.

Companies are trying out different solutions. The 20% rule for example, where there are Fun Fridays reserved to give some structured time to play around with out-of-the-box ideas and solutions or the initial resourcing itself is done only at 70-80%. Bigger firms can afford to absorb that kind of overhead.

Then there are contests held such as hackathons where the prize winners are sponsored an exotic holiday or an expensive gadget. In essence, it is about creating a work culture and environment where there is a clear message that straying out of the line and coming up with cool solutions are rewarded.

Innovation at the projects level

At the projects level, when the project manager is struggling to keep his team together and meet deadlines, is innovation feasible at all? Again, experienced managers vouch for the fact that it is often possible only because of a culture that pushes you in the direction.

“Most people are capable of innovating, some people more so. But the most creative solutions come not when you’re at your desk, but when you are sipping coffee or when you are watching a football game. Factoring this, we always build buffers as part of the schedule,” says a Project Manager from a leading IT firm.

He continues, “Brainstorming also works. Getting in to a room and throwing out ideas with no fear of consequences or judgement is when brainstorming works effectively. Sometimes, people worry about hierarchies. But, what we have seen is that with the presence of good role models at a senior level, who are not conscious of stretching the boundaries of imagination, the rest of the group starts feeling comfortable and gets into the groove soon enough.”

Also, another pre-requisite for innovation is being well-read in your space. People often think of innovation as the next cool gadget or device, but it could be in the way we do things, in a process, in an algorithm, in the way code is stylised, in the way metrics are computed, in the manner in which an idea is presented to others or just about anything, really. Anything that leads to making life simpler and contributes to productivity and optimisation can be termed innovation. So that expands the range in which we operate.

Being well-read in the space you are working on and being updated about the events happening in the industry or in your zone helps you think relevant and be current. One interviewer who was recruiting a project manager for a database systems based project rejected a candidate because he did not know much about cloud computing. When asked he just said that he would like the leaders in the organisation to be abreast of the newest things in the industry. The world is getting compressed and there is an inevitable overlap across different areas.

Innovation is definitely not something that can be achieved in one day. If you want to keep it simple – create a culture, create accelerators and invest in good, passionate people – you are likely to see the turnaround.