A lot of people think that the most important contribution of a project manager is building the plan. That’s what a project manager does—breaks work structures into tasks; identifies the dependencies; feeds tasks into a project management tool; works with the functional managers to build the right team, and assigns tasks to team members. And then from here, the team just implements the plan and the project manager monitors the work to make sure the team is on schedule.
Think again. Building the plan is not a project manager’s most important job—especially for projects that need to innovate among a lot of uncertainties.
If innovation is required to be successful, the most important job of a PM is to nurture an environment where the team can innovate. To do this, the PM must communicate with team and stakeholders throughout the project; focus on solving problems, and create space for failure.
Here’s a closer look at what project managers need to do to keep innovation thriving.
Communicate: Ask Questions, Understand Goals, Engage Daily
When creating a plan for building a skyscraper, an experienced construction project manager will know how long it takes to perform routine tasks like pouring concrete or wiring the lights. This PM will also be able to build the plan without talking to the people who will actually do the work. But when innovation is involved, few tasks are routine, so the PM must work with the entire team to create the plan.
The role of the PM in this process is not to answer all of the questions needed to create the plan, but to make sure the correct questions are asked and answered. To do this, the PM must understand the goals and concerns of the stakeholders well enough to represent them throughout the project. The PM then works with the team to create a work breakdown structure and initial time estimates for the tasks. The goal of this plan is to be accurate, not precise.
Once the project is launched, the PM needs to engage the team daily, possibly through scrum style stand-up meetings, so that the plan can be updated and the stakeholders informed of changes as the plan evolves. At any moment a stakeholder should be able to call the PM and get status on the biggest risks, the latest learnings, how the plan has changed, and progress towards the next deliverable. Regular reports must be shared with the stakeholders describing the status of the project, especially any major lessons learned or departures from expectations.
Focus on Solving Problems, Not Completing Tasks
One way that the project manager builds a culture of innovation is to focus on problems to solve as the core activity, as opposed to tasks to perform. This gives the team the flexibility to go where their expertise and discoveries lead them.
I once worked with a client who assigned us a task to measure the electronic noise of a system, but the question they were trying to answer was whether shielding would be needed. The team discovered that other parts of the system were designed in a way that made the answer obvious—the noise would be unacceptably high. Our suggestion was to improve the filtering before we measured the noise. If the team had just performed the task of measuring, we would have wasted a lot of time and money and not gotten any closer to a solution.
Failure Is Not Only an Option, It’s a Requirement
If your team feels that failure is not an option, I can guarantee you they will not take the risks necessary to find an innovative solution. Your stakeholder may be concerned with wasted time and effort if a concept doesn’t pan out, but an effort is only wasted if you learned nothing from it. As an example, if you spent three days building a prototype that you should have known wouldn’t work based on reading a Wikipedia article, that’s wasted effort. But if the reason that the concept didn’t work was not obvious without spending the three days building and testing the prototype, then it was a success.
As a PM, it’s your job to build a plan that doesn’t assume that the project follows the happy path, where everything goes right. If you do, then ideas that don’t pan out lead to delay and disappointment. This creates stress on the stakeholders and the team, leading to a future of risk aversion. It’s hard to build “failure” into your plan because your stakeholders want you to move fast, but it’s even harder to build invention.
Be Part of Something Vital
It’s critical that everyone on the team feels protected, so they will have the confidence to innovate. Learning and intelligent risk-taking must always be rewarded, even if all you learn is that the project isn’t feasible.
In an innovative culture, the distinction between the people manager and the project manager becomes blurred. The PM can’t treat the practitioners as cogs. Your team members will often be crossing disciplines to invent their way out of a problem. This requires much more communication and trust. It’s your job as the PM to nurture a team where this innovation can happen.
Great things happen on projects when those common hurdles don’t sideline your team. Lead your team to be the best thinkers and doers in the biz. Download our eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”
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