How do you schedule innovation? A common conflict, even in a well planned and organized environment is marketing’s request for a new feature yesterday versus engineering’s expectation for it to take weeks to months, or even years to deliver. In addition to the starting point gap in availability, it is extremely difficult to accurately estimate how long it will take to do something that has never been done before. Even if the team can accurately estimate the time for a working prototype, the time for integration and verification seems to always take longer. New ideas are highly valuable, but funding risky projects is scary. What can a program manager do to help a company deliver an innovative product? Much of the conventional program management wisdom focuses on keeping to schedule and budget in part by drawing from the experiences of very similar completed projects. Creative projects rely on estimates that may be wrong, and may be slowed down instead of sped up by the addition of extra people midway through the project, or other common methods of crashing a schedule.
Where conventional methods might not fit unconventional projects, there are steps that a program manager can take to help executive management feel confident about funding these projects, and help development engineers feel supported and empowered to deliver on them. Here are 3 areas of action to help deliver innovative new creations.
(1) Take time to research and review the specifications. Think through the pieces needed to deliver a robust usable solution. Project development is expensive and up front planning time can save money by setting the project in a well thought through direction. That being said, by the time the bits are stored on your flash drive of your final and signed off Product Requirements Document, the landscape will have changed. It is necessary to be flexible and adaptable. The competition or supply chain will have changed so that you may need to change your design, its interfaces, or its use model. Your own results from early attempts may feed into spec changes. It is critical to figure out how to minimize change, while incorporating data that demand change.
(2) Define shades of done. While complex large scale projects rely on distinct specialties, each with their own terminology, the deliverables can be broken down into common terms. Engage each team to help with the definition of Requirements Understood, Plan to Implement Identified, Plan implemented, Plan Tested, Plan Under Change, Plan Integrated into Larger Plan, Plan tested again, and Plan Fully Verified and Validated. Other Key Indicators are: Plan in trouble internally and Plan in trouble due to some outside dependency. Communicate frequently. Share snapshots of “doneness” in an open, consistent manner so that the stakeholders are regularly kept up to date. Openly post the reports, so any interested party can figure out the state of progress. Document changes – beware that changing the spec to match external changes will impact the schedule and budget. Visibility into what is (or isn’t) being done, and how far along it is will help with the predictions and scheduling of the teams downstream of the design team. Conscientious communication and transparency into the process will help executive management feel that they know how their money is being spent, and help engineering teams work more effectively with each other.
(3) Maintain a collaborative positive environment where the engineers meet the trust that they are doing their best and everyone else looks for ways to help, not to scold or annoy. It is very important, especially in a project with new territory, that the greater team understand that progress may not happen exactly as predicted. Greeting the team with “what can I do to help?” will get better results than “What? You haven’t finished that yet? What’s taking so long?” The program manager serves as an interface to the support infrastructure and upper management. Sometimes you can help with extra resources; sometimes you can help with buffering tension and allowing dedicated engineers more freedom to finish. While there may be doubt about dedicated engineers, I have always found that when they know they are heard, when they participate in the feasibility, and they participate in the schedule setting, they are always dedicated to delivering, no matter how ambitious the project.
Our economy depends on new advances, but new advances involve the unknown and are hard to schedule. These steps alone are not enough to produce the innovation, but they create a fertile environment to enable exploration and funding of new, risky innovation. It is very likely that the project time and budget will differ from the original estimate for a project run this way, but it is also likely that the project will complete with satisfied stakeholders and a researched target. Program management can make a significant difference in successful delivery of innovation.