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.