How can we innovate if we stick to project management processes? Can we really plan innovation? How would it feel if a project manager created a Gantt chart with milestones that define when innovation has to be delivered? It sounds weird, doesn’t it?
According to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup philosophy. we don’t need a fully-fledged new product or service to test if the market actually wants it. All we need is to find a way to test if there is an appetite in the market, even if the product or service doesn’t exist already.
The first step, however, is to find out whether there is actually a problem that needs to be solved. Often, people fall in love with a problem (maybe because they already have the solution) but they don’t verify if the problem exists or if it actually needs to be solved. Maybe, users already have a solution for it that is good enough. If I look at all the fasting apps out there, I wonder why a decent timer of a mobile shouldn’t be sufficient 🙂 Usually, verifying the problem can be done by conducting interviews. However, beware of anecdotal evidence. This first step nevertheless already includes a multitude of work packages that a project manager should take care of.
The second step in an innovation project is to verify if the product or service to be built solves the problem. My favourite example is the first iMac. Apple removed the floppy disk drive from this groundbreaking new consumer computer, and almost everyone thought that this would be the end of Apple. The problem to be solved: Users wanted to exchange files but floppy disks only carried 1.44 MB (yes, there were Zip drives, but they were a proprietary solution). If Apple had asked users, they would have probably said that they need bigger floppy disks. But Apple included a modem so that files could be sent. And while customers were disappointed about the lack of floppy disks, today these disks have disappeared, and even huge files are exchanged over the web. Apple found a solution to a problem that was different to the one that customers had thought of but it worked.
How to test if a solution works depends on the problem. But it is obvious that project management will play a vital role here: We might have user tests, prototype builds, etc, all based on the results of the first phase.
The third step is about product market fit. Now that we know that the product or service solves a problem, we want to know if people actually want to pay for it and if we can reach more than just a few test users. Again, this will require the art of project management. How will we charge? What are the legal requirements? What about terms and conditions? There is so much to consider, so many lose ends that a project manager needs to connect.
Obviously, we don’t have a waterfall model here even if it looks like it at first sight. It is unlikely that we will be successful in each first iteration. We may need several iterations for the 1st step, again several iterations for the 2nd and so on and so on. All of these steps and iterations need to be documented. And there might be budget constraints, too.
To sum up, if you are asked to take over an innovation project, think of these steps. Even if innovation cannot be planned, these steps are a good framework to think about planning in an innovation context.