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Five innovation capabilities to boost project performance

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Most leaders tell me their most urgent need is for greater organisational agility and innovation. They’re usually right. Too many organisations rely on mindsets, methodologies and metrics designed for a different era.

Project managers feel this tension more than most: doing more with less, working with increasing levels of ambiguity, and yet with no grace for project delays or deviations because of unforeseeable events.

So how should they respond? While coaching hundreds of innovation projects, I have identified five capabilities that not only boost project performance, but also increase a project manager’s perceived value to the organisation.

  1. Design better questions

Most ideas are sparked in response to a question. The quality of your questions will affect the quality of your team’s ideas. The key to a great innovation question is being narrow in focus but wide in the exploration that it provokes.

Consider a task to increase the speed of a customer checkout experience. We might ask: how could we make it faster?

A question without performance parameters invites incremental and intergalactic ideas alike – fine if you have a lot of time for the creative process. But a more pragmatic approach is to articulate the ‘needle’ you’re trying to move. This still leaves the door open for divergent thinking, but with everyone on the same ‘outcome page’, a much higher percentage of ensuing ideas will be more relevant.

Be specific about context. A better question might be: how could we help customers spending over £50 complete the checkout process in under 20 seconds? That might be based on an insight that 80 per cent of the most lucrative customers bail within 30 seconds.

Alternatively, if the outcome you’ve been tasked to deliver appears impossible, try reframing the question. If customers are frustrated with waiting, how could you make the waiting more enjoyable, and therefore less noticeable? 

  1. Test your ‘leap of faith assumptions’

Leaders often declare an appetite for bolder ideas, but they rarely choose them from the menu. The main reason? Risk aversion. And with good reason. Even Google expects 99 per cent of its bold ideas to fail.

Evidence abounds of the correlation between the boldness of ideas and failure rates. Ditto risk and reward. Which is what makes it such a common source of executive hand-wringing: we fear the thing we long for.

But, at a coal-face level, Google and others have overcome this challenge. Knowing that most of their bolder ideas will be wrong, and that people don’t like to experience failure, they work hard to lower the stakes of stepping towards a bold idea.

During my time with Cisco, I helped coach project teams in customised ‘Lean Startup’ tools that quickly and cheaply helped them identify the ‘leap of faith assumptions’ of their ideas. That is, the single points of potential failure that would need to be true for the idea to work.

Testing these assumptions with fast, tiny experiments creates data that a project manager can use to decide whether to kill, adapt or persist with an idea. Rather than building out the whole idea to find out whether it will work, this pay-as-you-learn approach has become a core methodology in many successful teams. 

  1. Build trust like Spotify teams

Teams that work well with bolder ideas tend to have deep levels of trust. Building trust is a non-negotiable yet little-rewarded responsibility for project managers. And while trust tends to develop over time, teams are increasingly assembled as temporary and virtual entities.

At its core, trust comes down to capability and character: ‘To what extent am I confident in what you’ll do, how you’ll do it and why you’ll do it?’

Spotify tackles this head-on. When a new team is formed, a project manager is given the responsibility for facilitating a crucial team conversation: ‘Based on the likely journey ahead, what will need to be true for us to deliver the objective?’ A core dependency that teams will discuss is trust. Team members co-design optimum ways of working and accountability measures that will hold that team culture in check. When team members can broadly anticipate how others will act in moments of certainty and uncertainty, the level of trust starts, and more likely stays, high. 

  1. Flush out friction, on repeat

High-performing teams tend to make themselves the focus of innovation at regular intervals. Rather than remaining frustrated with ongoing performance constraints, they regularly review their value chain and the cause-and-effect dynamics across it. Axiell, a technology company, runs team workshops to map end-to-end processes across a wall, identify the points of greatest friction and then co-design remedies accordingly.

Finding the time to innovate is hard. But spending one day a quarter reviewing and fine-tuning ways of working delivers exponential benefits in terms of team efficiency, morale, energy and trust. And everyone agrees it is time very well spent. 

  1. Let go of knowing

‘Leading is knowing’, a senior manager at a global telecoms company once told me. When it comes to working with ambiguous ideas, that statement couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the desire to know the right answer from the outset stops many bolder ideas from ever being explored. This is especially true in industries where managerial success is based on ‘knowing the most’, such as professional services. Teaching smart, certainty-driven people to learn is tough.

High-performing innovation teams have managers who have learned to let go – not of delivering the outcome, but of how the outcome is delivered. They galvanise to the collective genius of the team, knowing that it is the best way to find the right ideas and to sustain levels of team engagement. When managers grip too tightly to the journey, they squeeze out the possibility of anything other than predictable ideas emerging.

Talk about this issue at the start of a project: at what points in this journey am I likely to be closed to the input of others, and why? What would need to be true for me to be more open, for the overall benefit of the project? Sure, there are times when you just need to decide, but your team’s overall performance will suffer if that becomes your default instinct.

The line between project management and innovation is blurring. My advice? Raid the innovator’s toolkit and make navigating ambiguity the new project management superpower. 

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  1. Louise Mckenna-Mayes
    Louise Mckenna-Mayes 16 September 2020, 10:46 AM

    Elvin, Thankyou for sharing this post. The highlight "Be Less Zombie". Im just kicking off a project that involves working on ideas and tech solutions that currently do not exist. Its a great project in which I often talk about Project Mangers and there Superpowers.