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The need for speed: Three tips for maintaining momentum on innovation projects

January 25, 2017

project-teamIt’s no secret that everyone is talking innovation. While some are doing it, many continue to struggle with taking an idea, developing the concept and business case, and delivering a new product/service/internal system to customers or employees.

The good news is that it isn’t rocket science. The bad news is that it does involve discipline and commitment. Most often, innovation projects start with team training, an exciting kick off, and idea generation – all of which are energizing and fun. As the ideas are narrowed and a winning concept emerges, the true work begins. We discover more about our idea. The concept is explored and examined in-depth, potential road blocks (or as we call them, “death threats”) are identified and addressed, and business cases are made. The team is excited to present the concept, along with the business case and recommendation that move the project into the next stage - development. The executive team agrees and we all leave the meeting feeling really good.

Then the project falls into a black hole……Enthusiasm starts to wane, project timelines get longer, costs increase, employees don’t have time to complete the work, deadlines are missed, and many projects fail or are killed. In fact, according to this HBR article, “…when the original schedule of a project doubled, the cost and schedule overruns increased by a factor of 16.” I don’t know of any senior leader who wants to have to explain that!

So with that in mind, here are three ways you can avoid the black hole of development:

1. Pick and secure your development team BEFORE you go into development.

As soon as you realize you will be making a ‘go’ recommendation, identify which team members will move from the discovery phase into development and delivery. Identify and secure the additional specialty resources you will need that were not part of the original team (ex. IT, marketing, manufacturing, finance, etc.). Be sure they can commit to the project. If you wait to start resourcing until after you get the ‘go ahead’, you will lose weeks in trying to gather the right team and get started. What a momentum killer!

2. Establish a high-level development plan as part of the discovery phase of the project.

As part of the final business case and recommendations to leadership, the current project team should include a high-level plan that outlines what this project is going to need moving forward. Senior leaders need to understand (as soon as possible) which resources will be needed and how the process will flow. If you are using a prescribed methodology like Agile, StageGate, etc., use that system to outline the development process. The key is to keep the process (and project) moving. If you wait until after the “go” decision is made, you’ll lose valuable time that could be spent on development instead.

3. Practice rapid cycles of development.

We encourage rapid cycles of learning in the discovery phase: every week we look at death threats to our idea and determine if we can move past that road block and on to the next. Why stop there? These weekly cycles are so important to the process, that we encourage our clients to maintain this flow into development. That means breaking the work down into tasks that can be done in one week increments and reporting regularly. It also means engaging clients/employees with early prototypes to provide feedback so we can make the product or service incrementally better each week instead of waiting until it is ‘perfect’ for delivery. Clients and employees are happy to provide feedback on prototypes if it will make the end product a better match for their needs.

Teams that make the transition from discovery to development with minimal downtime deliver their innovation faster, with less cost and greater success. They win because they use the excitement and enthusiasm of a successful project to propel the development phase. If your teams struggle with keeping projects on time and on budget, review your process and make the changes needed to start generating momentum again.

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