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Can Project Managers Really be Innovative?

Guest contribution by Debra R. Miller, Co-founder- Values Centered Innovation Inc.

A recent Project Management Conference in Dallas focused on all things Innovation. Given my long-standing background in both Project Management and Innovation, I was delighted to be on a panel that explored how project managers, their teams, and their company cultures could be more innovative.

Knowing that my responses would need to be succinct, before the conference I carefully thought about the 4 questions relating to Project Management and Innovation our panel would be asked. Here’s what I shared... answers that stimulated a good number of provocative conversations! I hope you'll find them equally provocative.

QUESTION 1💡 

Share with us basic information about your company as well as your opening thoughts on how to create an innovative team.

At Values Centered Innovation, we specialize in building innovation capabilities that enable people throughout the organization to BE innovative, THINK innovatively and ACT innovatively in their everyday work.

We define innovation in its simplest terms as “doing something new, better, or different in order to produce a positive benefit.”

As project managers, you are always innovating with each project you manage, no matter how small or large the scope, and no matter the topic. The purpose of your project is always related to doing something new, better, or different and this means you’re always innovating.

That brings me to the #1 key thing that we find makes the biggest difference when you’re striving to have your team be innovative. That is to sincerely realize that every person, including yourself, has the potential to be creative and innovative.

Take a moment and answer these questions:

  • Do you think YOU are a creative and innovative person? If your answer is hesitant or no, then this is an important mindset change you’ll want to make.
  • Do you think every member of YOUR CURRENT TEAM is creative and innovative? If your answer is hesitant or no, then again, this is an important mindset change you’ll want to make.

If you can walk into your office on Monday morning with the sincere realization that every person, including yourself, has been and can be innovative, it will make one of the biggest differences in having your team be innovative.

Related to this, there are 2 aspects to building an innovative team. We call this the “art and discipline” of innovation. The first-- the “art”-- is the human side, the quality of the relationships you build among your team members. To be highly innovative, there must be trust, respect, and as a Google research study reported, a feeling of psychological safety. The stronger your relationships are, the stronger your capability will be to be innovative.

The second is the “discipline” side of innovation. Sometimes people think that discipline will stifle creativity and innovation, but actually, the opposite is true. Think about a dancer or a musician. How many years do they have to practice their basic skills in order to perform well? The result of their years of discipline gives them the freedom to express their abilities in ways that you and I could never do.

One way you can start a good conversation about innovation with your team members is to ask them “How do you work best when you need to do something new, better, or different?” Give each person an open, safe space to think about this question. They may need time to think about it and even their answers may change over time as they become more self-aware.

QUESTION 2 💡 

Can you describe a situation in which Project Management and Innovation merged to provide a successful result?

There was a time when I was managing IT for an international oil and gas company and we were upgrading our mainframe software. This was typically a very stressful process. As we started to plan the project, I told my team that we had the opportunity to do things differently and that I wanted to see how we could make this a fun project, rather than an exhausting project that we couldn’t wait to be done with.

At first, people seemed a bit skeptical-- and I didn’t blame them! But I kept asking throughout the project planning, “How can we make this a fun project?” Slowly, but surely people began to come up with ideas like baking chocolate chip cookies on the night shift or having a movie day while waiting for our vendor’s software engineers to do their work.

But what really happened during that project is that as people began to lighten up and open their minds, their ability to be more proactive in their thinking began to happen. A sense of “we’re all in this together” began to build over time. Trust began to build and people felt safe to talk about their concerns and ask for others’ input to think about the best way to handle things. Ultimately, there was an atmosphere of respect and camaraderie, of working together to do our best for this project.

The software upgrade went without a hitch and we even fixed some software issues that had been on our backlog for a long time. Even those who were on the night shift got to go home early, which is always a nice perk.

So a sincere question as simple as “How can we make this project fun?” can stimulate innovative thinking and bring a team together to be more innovative.

QUESTION 3 💡 

Describe your perspective on the importance of Organizational Culture and Innovation working in tandem.

Most definitely it’s important for an organization to foster a culture that supports people to be innovative. But, the reality is that most middle managers and even senior leaders that we work with do not feel that their culture supports them to be innovative. They often feel concerned that they won’t have the support they need to put into practice the new mindset and behaviors that they’ve learned.

So we discovered decades ago that it’s important to make a distinction between climate and culture.

In simple terms, culture is the set of values and norms that are embedded in your systems, practices, and policies. Culture requires a concerted effort among executives to change over time.

On the other hand, climate is the set of values, attitudes, and behaviors specific to your workgroup, and is highly influenced by the group leaders. The leaders and even individuals in the group have lots of freedom to define and influence your climate.

The common attitude is that change has to start at the top and has to be driven from the top. But we’ve found that typically that isn’t where the real change happens when it comes to innovation. The real change typically happens from the middle out.

Our strongest sponsors who are able to make the biggest impacts are the ones who start by influencing the climate via middle managers. They work to build innovation competencies and produce some positive results.

Over time, the changes these middle managers make and the results they produce get the attention of the senior leaders and as a result, they start to influence the culture. Once the middle manager is comfortable with their new skills, they naturally want to share them with those they are managing.

So while the initial skill-building takes place with the middle managers, the ripple effect goes both upward and outward to those they influence.

The 2nd thing we do is help people realize that innovation is far more than the next latest and greatest product that produces revenue. You can be and need to be, innovative in every aspect of your daily work. So for us, the key is to develop the fundamental skills for being innovative, thinking innovatively and acting innovatively in your everyday work.

As project managers, it’s important for you to be a positive role model and example of what being innovative looks like and to create opportunities for your team members to be innovative in their daily work. Consistent positive coaching and reinforcement are keys to success.

QUESTION 4 💡 

How do you positively influence a team to create an atmosphere ready for innovation to flow freely? Additionally, what tools and techniques do you use to foster innovation?  

I’ve mentioned several ways you can positively influence your team members to be innovative:

  1. adjust your own mindset; to sincerely realize that every person, including yourself, has the potential to be creative and innovative. 
  2. foster strong relationships built on trust, respect, and psychological safety.
  3. influence your team climate by being an example of what it looks like to be, think and act innovatively in your own work.

Here are 3 additional tools and techniques we have found to be highly effective.

🛠️ Tool #1 is based on the realization that people think innovatively in different ways. We’ve found 4 distinct ways that people think innovatively:

  • One way is to start with a blank slate and imagine ideally how you want things to be.
  • A 2nd way is to look at what you’ve already done and see how you can build on that.
  • A 3rd way to think innovatively is to question why things are the way they are in order to think about things in a totally different way.
  • A 4th is to gather lots of facts, details, and research and combine them into a process to come up with something new.

While you and each of your team members will have different preferences for thinking innovatively, the key is to build the awareness and versatility to think in all 4 ways.

🛠️ Tool #2 is simply to remember that when you’re innovating, you’re doing things in a new, better, or different way and there’s always the potential for some level of failure. So if you want people to stretch, it’s important that you give them two ways to win. One way is to measure what was achieved in actual results. The other way is to measure what was learned: What new knowledge was created that can benefit future projects?

🛠️ Tool #3 (which I find most helpful) is to realize that innovation has a breathing rhythm. The inhale is where you gather the raw materials you need to innovate. And the exhale is where you do something with it and produce a beneficial result.

For us, a good inhale includes setting a goal that is meaningful to every person who will be impacted by it. Identifying-- upfront-- the emotional consequences of success or failure, as well as what gives you confidence. It also includes analyzing the factors and issues that will need to be addressed and resolved in order to be successful.

Once you’ve taken a good inhale like this, then you’re ready for the exhale. This starts by generating creative ideas and formulating your innovative solution. Then, of course, you need to plan and execute your implementation. And to complete your exhale well, be sure to appreciate and celebrate both what you’ve learned and what you’ve achieved.

Remember… as project managers, you’re always innovating with every project you manage!

About the Authors

Debra Miller and William Miller have dedicated their careers to enabling “conscious innovation”. Debra draws from her experience as an IT executive and business coach, while William completed his tenure as Head of Innovation Management at the Stanford Research Institute. Together, they balance inner transformation with mastering new competencies for bringing out the innovative best in “every person, every job, every day.”

Debra Miller and William Miller

Last updated: 04 Jul 2022

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