Are projects the right vehicles for innovation?

One of the most interesting changes is the growing involvement of project management with the delivery of innovation. It’s not that innovation within projects is new. Far from it! What is becoming more prevalent is the deliberate use of projects to create and manage innovation.

Kavanagh and Naughton (2016) looked at the correlation between how a country valued project management as a discipline with the level of innovation reported by that country.


Their results  suggest that there is good evidence that the higher the project management score (measured by project qualifications taken in the country), the higher the level of innovation. Only, however, up to a point, and then the innovation score falls while the in-country project capability continues to rise.

Why would that be? The good initial correlation, followed by the separation may be a consequence of the surrogate measure used to determine project management capability. They based it on the number of certifications in formal, method-based project management with its traditional approach to project planning. We believe projects are an ideal way to deliver innovation provided it is managed as an innovation project. Unless the planning, as well as other disciplines in project management, is appropriately modified, this is precisely the curve we would expect.

What do we mean by innovation?

Innovation is a slippery concept. It is clearly related to being new; sometimes it is confused with invention, and it definitely seems to imply creativity. All concepts that can, at least on the face of it, appear to be the very antithesis of the structured formalization of projects and their plans.

Fagerberg (2004) makes a helpful clarification. He argues that “Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.” Using this idea, a project is the vehicle that transitions an invention into an innovation. This takes away the suggestion that innovation projects are responsible for creating the ‘divine spark,’ and leaves the sizable task as to how you structure the work of the team to allow, and even encourage out-of-the-box thinking?

Perhaps the first step is to consider a thought first mooted by Schumpeter (1934), one of the early theorists working on the management of innovation. He suggested that “All innovation is [to be] understood as a recombination of existing knowledge.” That’s definitely one justification for managing innovation via projects.

Project teams are often a combination of specialists from various backgrounds, each with a different knowledgebase. This gives rise to the need for individuals to re-examine and re-explain to other team members the basis of their viewpoint, and this encourages cross-fertilization of ideas. Now, consider the case that the innovation project team may be deliberately made up of people with diverse backgrounds; we have the beginning of how traditional project management can and is evolving to meet this challenge.

What other things should be done? We know that applying constraints in the right circumstances promotes innovation. And we also know that inappropriate application of constraints kills it. So, what is the secret formula?

Kanter (2013) set out a series of factors that she claimed were promoters of innovation.  The only one that would immediately attract the eye of an experienced project manager is item 3, creating ‘slack time’ for resources. A phrase schedulers are familiar with, but not precisely in this context!

1.    Encourage new ideas, especially from below and from unexpected sources.

2.    Look ahead, not behind. The past is prologue but not necessarily precedent.

3.    Leave some slack for experimentation, whether spare time or seed money.

4.    Look for improvements, not critiques. Encourage collaboration toward common goals.

5.    Be flexible. Stress substance over form, action over calendar. Allow for unplanned opportunities.

6.    Open strategic discussions to new voices.

7.    Accept that stretch goals mean some things won’t work. Avoid public humiliation; promote public recognition for innovative accomplishments.

8.    Foster respect for people and their talents.

9.    And learning is an imperative. Everyone, even the most experienced, must be open to learning.

Promoters of innovation (Source Kanter, 2013)

The argument is that the plan (and schedule) must feature a higher tolerance for slack resources and considerably greater levels of redundancy. In this way, calendar time, effort, and thinking ‘space’ are created for the experimentation associated with innovation. Where traditional project managers see ‘idle hands,’ planners of innovation projects see opportunities for failure without penalty.

Planning for innovation

BernsteinInnovation does occur in projects. We know this from the stories we capture from project managers.   You may like to consider on your own projects, in what circumstances innovation has happened.  Sometimes innovation happens as a result of the constraints applied in the project – almost accidentally.  In other projects innovation is the sole purpose of the project.  How projects are structured and planned to allow this to happen is just one of the subjects covered in our new book on Purposeful Planning to be released early next year.

You may like to consider on your own projects, in what circumstances innovation has happened.

  1. Have you been in situations where you had to deliberately generate opportunities for team members to learn to trust each other? How did you (or would you) go about doing that?
  2. How would plan and mange deliberately scheduled slack time? Do you think it should be structured, semi-structured, or unstructured? What is your reasoning for thinking so?
  3. Have you used timeboxing to encourage innovative thinking? How did you communicate its purpose to the team? Was their reaction constructive or non-responsive?
  4. Have you worked on a project with a very strong champion? Was the experience positive? Are there situations where having a champion is unhelpful to the execution of a project?


Kanter, R.M. (2013). Nine Rules for Stifling Innovation, Havard Business Review [Online], Available at, Last Accessed 9/8/18

Kavanagh, D., & Naughton, E. (2016). Innovation and project management-exploring the inks (Second Edition). PM World Journal,  Volume V, Issue II, February

Fagerberg, J. (2004). Innovation: a guide to the literature. Georgia Institute of Technology.

Schumpeter, J. A. (1961). The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle (1912/1934). Google Scholar.


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