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Overcoming Roadblocks to Innovation on Strategic Projects

When leading strategic projects we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of micromanaging the detail and executing projects in the same way as they’ve always been done. Instead we must strive for a new standard and deliver the outputs, outcomes and benefits of our projects in the most effective way.

New methods, tools and technologies become available every day, and it’s our job as project managers and leaders to challenge our teams to make the best use of them. By consistently looking for new and better ways of delivering solutions, doing business, saving money and optimising human potential we help our clients achieve their objectives.

The project managers who are the most successful at serving their clients and challenging the status quo are those who are skilled at observing the project from different angles and perspectives. Together with the team they question each part of the project and assess which aspects are working and which are not. They have the courage and energy to consistently look for opportunities to better utilise resources, people, technology, processes, knowledge and ideas. But it’s not necessarily an easy path as it’s much easier to maintain the present state than to question it and improve upon it.

What are the roadblocks?

Although it’s such an important aspect of strategic projects to challenge the status quo, many project managers aren’t doing it. How come? What is holding them back and is anything holding you back? Do you make an effort to rise above the day-to-day project activities and assess how things could be done better? And do you involve your team in the process by challenging the2080 Strategy Execution Coursesm to help you find the answers?

Many project managers defend themselves by saying that they don’t have sufficient knowledge of the project or of the client’s business to be able to suggest meaningful improvements. Or they argue that they have their hands full. That they are too busy keeping track of what is going on to be able to also spend time improving and innovating. After all, most of us would like to leave the office at a decent hour, and if the price is to stay late in order to work on something, which no one has asked for, then the motivation may quickly tail off.

What is your reason? I invite you to take a moment to assess which of the following roadblocks might be holding you back:

  • You have a lot on at the moment and you don’t feel you have the capacity to extract yourself from the detail of the project and think about innovation.
  • You know it is important to take time out to evaluate the project, but you somehow never get around to doing it.
  • You don’t feel that you have sufficient knowledge about the current state of affairs and about how your client’s business operates in order to challenge it.
  • Your team is inexperienced and needs a lot of direction. You don’t feel it is mature enough to assist with value-added idea generation.
  • You have lots of innovative ideas and an appetite for making changes but the organization you work for is conservative and risk-averse and you have difficulties securing their buy-in to bring about the changes you dream of.

If any of the above scenarios ring true for you what could you do to overcome them? Remember that challenging the status quo isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it is the only way to create real progress. Standing still is the same as moving backwards. The world is moving very fast and your project needs to move with it.

Overcome your fear of standing out

It turns out that there are a few psychological reasons that can help explain our lack of innovation.

The first reason relates to a fundamental human need we all have, which is a need to be accepted and to be part of a group.

When we lead the way, by proposing new ways of doing things, it can be disruptive to the environment where we work. There is a real risk that project managers who are too critical towards existing ways of working will be seen as disloyal and skeptics, although the opposite is probably true. Ultimately, their news ideas may cause a fall out within the project environment.

The second reason is linked to the first one – it is our basic need for safety and security.

Our brains are wired to keep us safe and to protect us from danger. So even if you have some great innovative ideas your team members might not support them. They may prefer the safe familiar options because they somehow worry about the risks and uncertainties associated with new approaches.

As you can see these underlying reasons might be working against you. But successful leaders of strategic projects don’t follow the easiest or the safest path. They follow the right path and do what’s ultimately best for the project and for the people involved. In his TED talk, Stop stealing dreams, Seth Godin puts it this way:

‘Fitting in is a short-term strategy that gets you nowhere; standing out is a long-term strategy that takes guts and produces results. If you care enough about your work to be willing to be criticised for it then you have done a good day’s work’.

The big breakthroughs don’t come from optimisation

In many cases it might be easier for project managers to look for marginal gains – that is small and gradual adjustments to processes, tools and technology – instead of making radical changes.

Identifying marginal gains doesn’t require people to stick their neck out too much. It is one of the quickest and safest ways to optimize a project and definitely has its place.

It is an approach where we improve tools, fine-tune workflows and increase motivation and engagement of the team. It’s about mapping out all of a project’s moving parts and looking for small improvements that can be made.

But marginal gains have a limited effect.

The big quantum leaps and breakthroughs don’t come from optimisation or modernisation. They come from innovation, experimentation and risk-taking.

Taking risks is part of the parcel and that invariably means that project managers and their teams have to be prepared to stand out and to be wrong! They have to be prepared to risk something – unless they want to stick with marginal gains.

The big take-away from this post is that leaders of strategic projects shouldn’t let underlying psychological barriers hold them back from questioning the status quo.

It’s within their sphere of influence to remind their clients, sponsors and team members that it’s okay to experiment and to fail and that it’s necessary to move forward in spite of uncertainty.

Project leaders can help bring about a shift towards a more risk-accepting culture by helping their teams to fail productively. That means learning from our failures and accepting that mistakes can be good as long as they genuinely help the team advance and get closer to the end goal. So perhaps it all comes down to getting better at making our failures smart and learning from what could otherwise be demotivating failures.

Seth Godin – Stop Stealing Dreams


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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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