Why is Innovating in Projects Different?

A few years ago I heard a talk by the group R&D exectutive of a global construction company. I’ve known him for a while and I know that he is one of the most enthusiatic advocates for innovation that you are likely to come accross, but when he was asked about innovation in some of the large projects that he was currently involved with his response was very interesting. I can’t recall the exact quote but essentially what he said was that anyone who took it upon themselves to start innovating in the middle of the job would have to give some serious explanation as to what they were doing and why they thought it would be a good idea.

The trouble with innovating in large projects is that there are interdependencies between the components that make changes risky. Unless we are confident that a component is free from the others and change will not compromise the system then potentially innovation can have catastrophic consequences. In the projects that Tim and I look at as part of research and consulting, innovation is very ‘front end’ compared to the tinkering and experimentation that can happen in products and services. Successful project innovators need to be good at getting the right ideas from the right people at the beginning. This is a challenge because this is when the project is most ambiguous. We have been researching a major infrastructure project which had a lot of trouble because a group of experts that needed to be on the project at the beginning weren’t aware of what was happening in the project until much too late, and reversing the investments made in the project will be expensive. In large organizations, knowing who to bring in at the beginning of a project is a critical innovation skill that is different from product innovation management.

On the other hand, technology is making project innovation easier. Experimentation can happen in the virtual world through CAD and other simulation techologies.

Experimentation and prototyping is still possible, even in the biggest projects.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “Why is Innovating in Projects Different?

  1. John
    In traditional approaches to project management this is unfortunately very true.

    However, as we see from the management of complex projects (which by definition requires project leaders to deal with high levels of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity), innovation can and indeed does take place at all points of the project life – but only if the organisation applies specific approaches (such as soft systems methodologies)!

    In our work with the Department of Defence (on major new acquisition programs which typically can run into $20B plus and 20-30 years induration) as well as in major infrastructure projects, embedding innovation in such projects can be very effective BUT ONLY if project teams can deal with emergence. Whn this occurs it is no longer about ‘reversing an investment decision’ but rather being able to respond to emerging strategic change. However, if culture and traditional project management practice doesn’t allow for this then it can become problematic at best to allow for any form of innovation.

    We have been translating these practices into the government arena for some time now and there seems to be a much greater appetite to face the challenges of complexity than there was even a few years ago.

  2. Hi Peter and John,
    My sense is that there is a core difference between your two entries. I feel John is really talking about ‘complicated’ projects and Peter talking more about the realities of complexity. My background is in architecture, but I now longer practice partly because of what I sensed was the emergence of this difference. Our current approach to large buildings is to see the challenge as creating a large ‘complicated’ product. It is either ‘finished’ or it is not. However something like ‘Venice’ is actually the accumulation of many different decisions over time. What the ‘final’ result is like is dependant on relationships, values and continous understanding and integration of ’emergent’ ideas. This same thinking of course still works for a city like ‘Melbourne’ (It is an entity, but never ‘finished’ and so reflects complexity), the difference being that the scale is completely changed. I now work in the Engagement and Partnerships Team of a Govt. Dpt. and I often wonder how we might today consciously create real pluralistic environments at the pedestrian scale that nowadays only exist in historical environments. In other words, how to enable large developments occur but which successfully accomodate growth and change.

  3. Hi Peter

    thanks for the comment. I’m wondering what sort of risk assessment frameworks have been developed for managing innovation in projects. Some projects have many “degrees of freedom” but others have components that are very tightly coupled. Projects are a very broad spectrum of operations. Any thoughts?


  4. Hello John

    I was particularly interested in the reference to ‘interdependency management’ in the above article – which often turns a collection of straight forward project activities into complex programs of work.

    What approach/method/tool do you John (or others for that matter) see as being well suited for this space?

    Aleks V.

  5. Hi John
    Re: risk assessments

    In the government context the approach to dealing with risk tends to be very particular to the business area ‘owning’ the innovation effort. As a result, it tends to be very fragmented and tightly coupled with the standard risk approaches applying to that area. For instance, if related to procurement there is very little freedom – it is all about probity, transparency and risk avoidance (as distinct from ‘risk management’). On the other hand if the organisation supports piloting – such as with ICT as an eabler fro new service design (together with a greater requisite tolerance for a level of failure) then greater degrees of freedom are permissable.

    Unfortunately, discipline maturity isnt quite there yet in this environment and I have found that risk management regimes need to be specifically designed and contextualised for that government organisation. For this reason (amongst others) the approach to risk in the government space tends to be closer aligned to traditional conservative sectors (such as finance) where there is very little tolerance for failure.

    The paradox here though is that the inability to deal with project complexity in a thoughtful and purposeful way means that there is still a significant high failure rate anyway. As a result, risk avoidance simply leads to greater downstream project failure!


  6. Martin has hit it on the head. There should indeed be a clear distinction between ‘complicated projects’ and ‘complex’. I find that this distinction is poorly understood. Complexity is all about emergence and uncertainty where traditional planning approaching simply do not work (or at best become a significant inhibitor) . Complex projects simply do not permit a reductionaist approach which is the hallmark of the complicated project.

    The only real way to deal with complexity is to adopt Soft Systems Methologies and the like to embrace emergence and uncertainty (which can take a variety of forms (from the technological through to the political). The attraction of SSM approaches for the innovation practioner is that they allow for the embracing of creative problem solving and opportunity focus at its very core and puts a focus on workplace behaviour change to drive outcomes.


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