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6 Critical areas of attention for innovation project leaders


6 Critical areas of attention for innovation project leaders

Innovation project leaders have a particularly exciting, but also challenging job. That's what I heard last week on a conference on open innovation. The next day though, on a similar conference I heard someone pledge that innovation isn't something to fit in a project.

So may be that's why it's so though to lead an innovation project? Are we using the wrong approach? Are ‘innovation’ and ‘a project’ things that can’t be combined? Can new ideas and disruptive innovations be created or even guided in something as structured as a project?

In my opinion, they certainly do. Once you move an idea from the ideation phase into the qualification (or exploration) and then development phase, a lot needs to be done with many different people in a short time. And that is notihng more or less than a project. An innovation project is different from building a house or a ship in that sense that not all designs, plans, drawings and involved parties can be known at the start. But that predefined outcome is not a prerequisite for a project. According to the Project Management Institute, a project is “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product or service”. Moving an invention of innovative idea to an innovation fits in here.

So are innovation projects not really different from what we generally are used to as projects?

They are of course different; they're usually quite a bit more complex then well defined projects.

More complex? Well, complex in a very different way. Developing a new espresso concept is not necessarily more complex than building an airplane, but it deals with a different type of complexity, one that many of us are less used to deal with.

In innovation projects,
· the outcome of the project is not certain
· the way to get there is not certain
· you have to collaborate with other organizations in very different ways than in a regular project: partners are not delivering defined products or services for which they are paid immediately, but sensitive information about their know how and products, investment in R&D, without the certainty of ever getting value out of it
· it is often about changing current status and thus threatening to current revenues and getting resistance to change

And that leads to very different dynamics and complexity in innovation projects. Even the biggest companies can not longer move from good ideas to successful new businesses without the knowledge, resources or cooperation from their customers, suppliers or expertise partners. And those big organizations also indicate that this different type of complexity is challenging in their innovation projects.

So - innovation project leaders clearly have additional challenges to address, and they are in the building the companies’ future markets so they can’t fail. The pressure for results is raising; project leaders cannot afford to loose precious time and resources in stumbling projects.

Here are 6 areas for innovation project leaders to pay additional attention to, in order to start and run your collaborative innovation projects better.

1. Alignment between the innovation partners involved – it is not a prerequisite that all involved organizations and people have concurrent goals and are aligned around the project goal and outcome. In some of the bigger projects, a formal partnership or consortium of organizations may have been established to support the innovation project. In such partnerships, a lot of attention goes to selection of the right partners, for example with complementary competencies and non-competitive market interests. But even if this was well prepared, alignment needs to be nurtured not only before but also during the innovation marriage. And in many projects, there may not be a formal innovation partnership, which puts the responsibility for building alignment much more, if not exclusively with the project leader.

Building and nurturing alignment requires from the innovation project leader:
· Getting the project goals and interests of all involved parties on the table (explicitly mentioned)
· Aligning the goals, interestsand commitment of each partner into a project goals that unites the innovation partners, in such a way that the innovation project can succeed
· Of course, this includes alignment around ownership & use of intellectual property and (commercial & scientific) benefits available before and developed during the project.

2. Trust between the partners – in order to get commitment from partners in other organizations, you’ll need mutual trust. And also during the project, trust remains an area of attention. Project leaders need to nurture it and protect it. You will gain a lot by · Communicating intensively with partners; individually as well as in group
· Promote transparent behaviour
· Share knowledge as much as you can; give before you expect to receive
· Deliver on your promises and be transparent if you can’t
· Be loyal to partners when not present; nothing breaks trust more than if people get the feeling that you loose your loyalty as soon as they turn their back
· Be forgiving for one time mistakes; issues happen in any project

3. Knowledge exchange between partners – your project likely brings together people from quite different backgrounds and with different expertise. Key to success is that they understand each other, and have access to the right information and expertise to do what they are required to in your project. In formal partnerships, companies will have thought about this during the partner selection and brought together enough talent & expertise to cover the biggest knowledge needs. But even if the knowledge is brought to the table, it still needs to flow! In many other projects with a less formal set up, it’s likely up to the project leader to both engage the knowledge and make it flow. Therefore pay attention to

· Analysing knowledge needs; who needs what knowledge or expertise for their contribution? Do they have it and if not, how can they access it?
· The difference between explicit and implicit knowledge; some knowledge can be brought by a document or wiki, but other knowledge will only be transferred through interactive exchange
· Promoting an open project culture, where asking questions and helping others with questions is praised

4. Finding the right balance between Transparency and Confidentiality – even if Intellectual Property is addressed, project partners likely need confidentiality to protect their know how. Even if confidentiality or non disclosure agreements are in place, they may very likely not want to share everything on their work in the project. For example, if they need to work for the project with their customers or suppliers, the identity of that (sub)-supplier or customer, or the contents of their exchanges could be something they’d rather not share with all other partners in the project. A confidential setting could also be more productive for brainstorming or similar activities. As much as transparency is important for the trust, respect for a company’s confidentiality needs is as well. The art is in finding a good balance between both. As a project leader, you’ll need to

· Understand the confidentiality needs of your organization and your partners
· Show and promote respect of each other’s know how
· Be clear with all partners on what is confidential in the project team, where transparency is required
· Be inventive to find the right balance where confidentiality needs seem in conflict with the project needs.

5. Access to key actors in your extended eco-system – just like you are dependent on your partners, your partners are dependent on their eco-system. Therefore, your project will certainly touch or need the cooperation of you partners’ partners. For example you likely do need cooperation of the customers of your customers to validate hypothesis in your new business model. Or your partner will need to work with their research partners or their supplier to modify, develop or test a piece of the innovation. You often don’t know who they are, only have access to them through your partners, but your project is dependent on their actions. They need knowledge, they need to be engaged, they need to be tied into the project activities. As a project leader, you need to

· Understand your partner’s dependencies, and the confidentiality, knowledge and planning implications
· Discuss with your partners the implications, and support them to include the extended ecosystem partners as easily as possible in your project
· Where possible & feasible, develop a direct relation with the extended partners, or tie them as closely as possible in the project

6. Engaging resources in other organizations – human and other resources in your ecosystem are scarce, and many other needs and projects conflict with your project; they also need time of the same people. Having a person appointed to your project or his attendance to a kick-off meeting is only the first step; ensuring that your project gets the value of that committed resource is a different challenge. Therefore, you need to make sure that in the limited time appointed, your project team can work as effectively and efficiently as possible on the project, without being distracted or hindered by any of the challenges discussed so far. As a project leader, pay attention to

· Minimizing the need for ‘catching up with where we are’ on the project. If someone feels like they need to read through 25 emails before they can catch up and add their piece to the puzzle, this is a big barrier. Make sure you update everyone regularly with short and easy messages, so they feel like up to speed all the time. Also ensure that your team can easily find all latest project information.
· Making contribution as easy as possible; minimizing redundant work. Make it easy for people to do their work, access additional information, raise questions, contact others.
· Invest in thinking through how you can make it easier for everyone to work, reduce the time they need to gather info or report back about progress. You’ll gain commitment and have maximum time for value creation instead of administration.
· Review regularly the way you collaborate and improve where you can.
· We call this ‘lean collaboration: eliminate non value add waste and continuously improve the way you work in the team.

Createlli helps to set up effective and efficient collaboration in value chains and ecosystems, for example in innovation projects. We offer advice, coaching and a software & collaboration toolkit. with our help and tools, you'll need to worry a lot less about these 6 critical areas of collaboration for your innovation.

Contact us to enhance collaborative innovation with your ecosystem !
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