If people think of innovation as a creative discipline to find new opportunities and fresh approaches to existing challenges, project management is probably the opposite. Project management is seen as more about the planning, organization, and delivery of projects on budget and on time. Important, but functional.
However, these are stereotypes that feel dated in 2022. Innovation is less about big lightbulb moments of inspiration and more about an ongoing approach that encourages and facilitates sustainable innovation.
Innovation now delivers enormous value for organizations, helping to save lives and creating billions of dollars of value. Because the rewards are so tangible, enterprises are more willing to invest in the tools, external crowds, and platforms that drive innovation.
At the same time as this shift around innovation, project management has remained a vital discipline. With many people adopting a hybrid working approach, there is more requirement than ever for smart project management that facilitates collaboration and communication.
What is behind the rise in enterprise innovation, why is it so important to align innovation with project management, and how should organizations approach it?
The ongoing rise of innovation
Innovation is not new, of course. Enterprises have known for a long time that they must be adaptable, agile, and deliver exceptional products and services to remain relevant and competitive. But the need to be innovative has become much more urgent, and the last few years have really upped the pace of innovation requirements.
The way that the world does business has changed forever. Organizations need to be more transparent about what they do and how they do it. They increasingly need to contribute more to society than just delivering good financial results to shareholders.
This has been driven further by the United Nations (UN) and its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This included 17 different but interconnected SDGs, all designed to drive change in their respective areas, including sustainability, climate action, and clean energy. The inspiration behind this innovation has traditionally come from the product, marketing, or R&D department, but a broader approach to innovation has emerged that is shown to deliver better results.
Firstly, idea management software emerged as a powerful tool for gathering, discussing, and developing ideas and innovation. As businesses need ideas and co-creation to ensure their future, so idea management has delivered the most effective way of managing that process. It’s not just about the idea, it’s also about doing something with the idea. Having an idea is relatively simple, but idea management ensures a framework for clearly defined innovation needs, helps to crowdsource the potential solutions, and then narrows those down to a discrete group of projects to be delivered.
Secondly, open innovation has become the global trend in innovation. Many organizations mostly looked within their own boundaries for innovation. That’s not to say that employees and associates aren’t capable of innovative ideas – they very much are – but sometimes, a problem or potential opportunity needs a different perspective.
Sometimes the best person to help will be an employee, but at others, it could be a partner, supplier, customer, or an expert from the crowd. That’s why open innovation is becoming such a popular trend. Open innovation refers to the practice of seeking ideas from outside an organization, effectively creating a long tail of innovation by accessing a global crowd of experts to solve various challenges.
It’s based on the idea that most of the smartest people do not work for your organization and that there are significant benefits to including these people when looking for innovative approaches. It’s a practice that has been highly effective in the public sector, pharmaceuticals, and NGOs, where open innovation has proven to be faster, more cost-effective, and more successful at driving innovation.
Project management, innovation, and collaboration
Concurrently, the use of project management teams has also been on the rise. With the world in a state of flux and uncertainty, organizations have turned much more to working on a project basis without committing to longer-term plans. This allows them to keep operational and effective but doesn’t commit the required budget and resources for longer-term strategies.
What innovation and project management have in common is that both are reliant on meaningful collaboration. This means providing employees with the right tools and not relying on email and spreadsheets.
Project management software helps a project manager with planning, scheduling, keeping track of time spent on tasks, and managing events, meetings, and milestones. It also monitors budgets and deadlines and makes it easy to keep track of ongoing projects. Crucially, it also allows collaboration and communication across team members.
This is arguably the most important element of project management. Without effective collaboration, any project is likely to fail. Similarly, innovation programs rely enormously on collaboration. Without the platform to gather, discuss and iterate ideas from internal and external crowds, how can innovation ever come to fruition?
With the hybrid workforce now so common, idea management and project management tools have increased hugely. But for users, switching between different tools can be time-consuming and frustrating. Systems need to be integrated seamlessly, working in harness to deliver higher engagement and create more value.
Connecting projects to innovation challenges means that ideas in project management software can move upstream, be given clarity, and be prioritized against a specific pain point. Equally, ideas within an idea management platform can be passed seamlessly to a project for development and delivery.
This combination means the development of new features, new innovations, or the enhancement of existing functionality is much smoother and more effective. It can be used from start to finish for internal and external ideas, prioritizing the best ones, making it easy to check the progress of an idea, and bringing them to life efficiently with a single record across the life cycle of that idea.
It also means that organizations can avoid the pitfalls of ideas disappearing into black holes, with a constant feedback and communication loop from idea to implementation. This relies on full integration across the value chain, so even if an idea contributor is not directly involved in delivering a project, they can still know the status of an idea.
Organizations keen to reap the benefits of innovation know that aligning innovation with project management is key to achieving them. Those that can do this effectively will flourish, while those that cannot see their innovation programs become sticky and lose momentum.
Simon Hill is co-founder and CEO of Wazoku, whose Enterprise Innovation Platform is used by organizations such as Enel, AstraZeneca, NASA, and HSBC to deliver sustainable innovation at scale.