I recently attended a project management seminar in which one of the speakers noted that a project manager must be systematic and innovative. The systematic part is a no-brainer; in order to be successful at managing a project, a project manager must understand what step goes before another step. A systematic approach by its nature is linear; it may be multiple paths performed simultaneously, but each individual path is still linear. But the innovative part may not come as naturally to many project managers.
The act of innovating is defined as "the introduction of new things or methods." In IT, we know that there is always a better way; the same can be said for how we manage a project. There are aspects of a company's culture, personalities of key stakeholders, constraints, and limitations that call for a project manager to innovate.
For instance, you should view the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) standards as important guidelines but not as exact rules on how to manage every detail of the project. Also, you should constantly challenge yourself to come up with a new, more efficient way of doing something. Innovative project managers take "think time" to look at the challenge from multiple angles and truly challenge how they have always done things.
I've seen project managers automatically re-use what went well during the last project (I've even done this myself); it makes life simple because the outcome is pretty predictable. But over time, you might find yourself going with a solution because you're familiar with it and not necessarily because it's the best one for the job.
The challenge for project managers is twofold:
- Whenever you get that squishy feeling that occurs when facing a new challenge, and you're tempted to take one of your "comfortable" tools out of the toolbox, stop and take some time to think and innovate. Instead, come up with the best tool for the job.
- When faced with a familiar challenge that you have the perfect tools to address, stop, take some think time, and look at the challenge from different angles. Now that you have used this tool successfully for so long, is there a way you can improve it, upgrade it, or replace it with the younger, sleeker model?
Think time takes discipline. I don't know any successful project manager who isn't driving projects at 100 mph with their hair on fire. Taking think time when time is at a premium has the best results; this think time is akin to the planning phase of a project. When the stakeholder wants to take action immediately, a wise project manager will understand that the more time spent in the planning phase leads to more successful project outcomes.