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Leveraging indirect benefits: shooting for the moon?

Rocket Launch

As a journalist covering the ever-evolving discipline of project management, I am always learning and looking for new angles. So, while researching APM’s ongoing exploration of the factors that make a project successful, I was struck when legacy benefits – in the shape of a mention in interview of the use of Teflon non-stick coating as a temperature-resistant material in the construction of the rocket for the Apollo 11 moon-mission project – came up.

Today, Teflon is more often found on the surfaces of cooking pots than on lunar bodies. The Apollo connection has become its origin myth: in fact, Teflon predates man on the moon by three decades, although the mission turbocharged its prominence. Still, its mention started off a thought process: when benefits not directly connected to the objective of a project emerge, how can they be harnessed? Are such benefits a common occurrence? And how well set up is project management to capture such benefits, if and when they occur?

Sci-fi into sci-fact

For answers, I return to Dr David Eggleton of the University of Sussex, one of the leaders of the success research. Conversations move from Sussex’s research on serendipity in the context of research and innovation to benefits encountered while moving towards a project objective. Dr Eggleton cites examples, including the internet, pioneered to solve the problem of moving large data sets, and GPS, originally developed as a military tool.

And sometimes it is not the innovation that is the benefit, but the technique developed during the project, as in the early iterations of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. This project was not a success at first: “The technology it was based on was almost obsolete as it was coming out.”

But its actual value can be measured in project management terms with solutions developed to problems encountered along the way – such as work breakdown structure, “a really fundamental project management tool that we seemingly cannot cope without today”.

So how can one capture a benefit and find a use for it beyond its original purpose? Knowledge management is critical: sharing knowledge within your project-based organisation, making sure others know about the benefit and documenting it. Here, Dr Eggleton suggests, “boundary spanners” within a project or an organisation could play a role.

“They are not just embedded within a single project, but have multiple identities across communities and projects… through them knowledge passes from the core of one project to other projects.”

Should this process be built into projects from the start as an objective, with someone there to capture the unexpected benefits along the way?

The rarity of rarities

I turn to Dr Hugo Minney, APM Fellow and co-chair of APM’s Benefits and Value SIG, to find out more. Dr Minney brings me back to earth, pointing out that genuine innovation is quite rare. “There is massive over-optimism in a lot of projects where it is imagined new solutions are going to be pioneered.”

This can, he suggests, distract from the original outcome, and indeed divert from good knowledge management. “You spend a lot of time and effort inventing new things, rather than using old things that work. You run the risk of not finishing what you start.”

Further, new solutions can even be dangerous – consider the pertinent lesson of the UK’s bespoke COVID-19 test-and-trace app, which was developed afresh instead of reaching for existing and tested technology.

Still, there is a case for project management mechanisms to harness innovations separate to project outcomes, although they remain rare. Dr Minney mentions NHS Innovations, which exists specifically to leverage innovation developed within the NHS to the benefit of health overall. “You could easily have someone doing this within a PMO and still get the job done, working out what is exploitable.”

This would be to the benefit of ROI and stakeholders. “It would need to be someone’s responsibility, if not their sole responsibility.”

Expanding the objective

Innovation and indirect benefits can be harnessed in project management. But it is more likely when they are part of the objective from the outset, even if the path is not clear. Dr Minney cites the example of London 2012, where the post-Games use of facilities and the subsequent growth of sport participation were both objectives. “They started with the objectives without knowing how to get there. I would hope most projects do that. Otherwise you are not going to come up with terribly exciting objectives.”

Yet genuine innovation comes up quite rarely. “Knowledge managers are far more useful… learning the lessons of what others have done.” Innovation can shoot for the moon, but project managers must keep their feet on the ground throughout.

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Image: Shutterstock.com/Vadim Sadovski

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  1. Hugo Minney
    Hugo Minney 12 January 2021, 11:08 PM

    Another excellent contrasting article, showing that you can't rely on serendipity, you have to plan, even if part of your plan is for innovation (for the objectives that you don't yet know how to achieve)

  2. Judy Payne
    Judy Payne 13 January 2021, 10:05 AM

    @APM - please could you add a #knowledgemanagement #KM tag to this post?