One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make better use of innovative opportunities. Instead of being quick to dismiss (or accept) new ideas or solutions, I now use a simple tool to better evaluate innovative proposals.

Project managers often take one of two approaches to new ideas: They adopt the first suggested approach or fail to commit to any of the proposed solutions. Both strategies can get you into trouble.

Adopting an idea too quickly
The project manager who jumps at the first (apparently) viable solution that presents itself is hoping to refine the proposed solution until it just about fits the requirement.

Donald Knuth, author of The Art of Computer Programming, writes, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.” He means that the result you can achieve is limited in its benefits. This is particularly true in project work, when the pressure is on to leverage your team’s specific experience to maximize the performance of the code today, perhaps without fully considering its future maintainability.

A big ongoing concern in project management is how to choose between families of technologies for a particular development before work begins. This is when the least is known about the actual detailed project requirements.

These technology families tend to work together as a distinct group (e.g., MFC/C++/Windows or VBScript/ASP). Failure to successfully “plump” for the best selection may result in the wrong team being assembled and, ultimately, a substandard deliverable.

This is when project managers are more prone to opt for a convenient solution and build code based on the technologies they know best rather than those which are actually a better fit for the project at hand.

Failing to adopt a solution fast enough
Project managers need to be able to spot unnecessarily risky strategies in advance in order to avoid problems later. This technique takes a lot of experience and an almost superhuman level of predictive ability.

If you fail to adopt a solution quickly, you may get locked into a risk-avoidance mindset. Although we are conscious of the looming deadline, we may try to keep our options open by avoiding commitment to one specific development track.

In project management terms, it generally means two things:

  • Only those approaches that are guaranteed doable, right now, get adopted. This tactic minimizes experimentation and limits any possible benefits of innovation.
  • The work takes forever to get started because of the difficulty in evaluating the best strategy.

As you can see, the two approaches I describe above are flawed. You need a general evaluation mechanism for dealing with the pressures and opportunities that innovation presents.

You can think of it as a “lite” version of the scientific method. Along with trying a number of options, you also have to conduct some quantitative monitoring and evaluation of the results. It simply isn’t enough to say, “We tried option A, and it didn’t work.” If results aren’t closely evaluated, then something more like trial and error sets in.

A simple innovation
In connection with these two main issues of managing innovation, I’ve been using an online “Innovations Box.” It’s just an intranet offshoot that enables project managers to better deal with risks, without undergoing more face-to-face meetings. Anyone can submit a problem statement that is believed to need an innovative solution (i.e., when a person can’t think of an obvious best approach).

I ask project managers to submit a maximum of 200 words to outline the following:

  • The problem/opportunity that may require an innovative solution
  • The timeframe and resources they have available

We have a review panel of three experienced individuals who read everyone’s opportunity notes daily, make brief suggestions, and then comment on the results, which are fed back to them.

Project managers have access to uploaded opportunity notes and can read the panel’s responses to individual queries. PMs can also submit the results of any test they subsequently undertake. They also get to read the comments that the panel then makes about those results. This way, project managers can ask about issues that they may not want to discuss in a companywide forum. (This process occasionally points them to an adequate off-the-shelf answer, which they hadn’t considered.)

This simple online tool encourages due diligence in that several people’s views are taken into account. This strategy provides a more robust, rapid-fire evaluation and also gives the project manager some protection from anyone who may ask later: “Why didn’t you try X?” In practice, project managers can still choose to ignore or modify the panel’s suggestions. Just writing down ideas and questions within the risky area of innovation, in a way that enables them to be shared, makes them more tangible and easier to navigate.

We all feel the need to get more of an edge from effectively exploiting innovative ideas, technologies, and techniques within our projects. If something genuinely innovative is needed, you can easily get caught by either adopting the first suggestion or ignoring them all. This simple online tool can greatly limit these behaviors and help focus, record, and validate the PM’s decision-making process. Adopting a similar strategy can help leverage more of your organization’s experience in evaluating opportunities for innovation.