Process: A Safety Vest or a Straightjacket? The case for big picture project planning

Planning for innovation requires a perfect balance between constraints and flexibility.

Looking down on a shipping yard

We love processes. Admit it. Every time there's a business issue – not enough follow through with sales, unsuccessful marketing, bad recruits, the usual answers is: “we should have a better process for that.”

So when it comes to innovation, it is no surprise that we strive to systemize how we come up with new products or systems, in hopes that we can just “rinse and repeat” next time we build something. We keep looking for the right set of guidelines that promise that if we follow them we will become great innovative thinkers. But a process that is great for systematic work, such as Six Sigma, when applied to ambiguous problems, often delivers unpredictable and inconsistent results.

Software tools and procedural process seem to be a match made in heaven. Software development itself is procedural work. But when you consider that engineers love solving intricate problems and thrive on complexity, it is not surprising that the majority of software productivity and process tools feature a labyrinth of tasks and dependencies and infinite task hierarchies and outcomes. However this is not the right approach to generate original work.

Innovation is the result of original work. It is original because either you create something that did not exist before, or the context, in which the work is created is so rapidly evolving that the way to reach your goal is defined as you go.

The opposite of original work is procedural work. While it also has a set goal, the outcome needs to be highly consistent and there is a clear path to it. As a result, you can easily define a process that is predictable and risk free. For example, the manufacturing of a mass-market car, like a Toyota, is the result of procedural work. Designing the next model of the Prius is the result of original work.

Innovation and original work do follow structure, but often at a much higher level. The dynamic organization needs a wide range of tools and models as it needs flexibility to address the diverse, open ended problems it and its team members are trying to solve.

That is why when we developed 10,000ft we focused on developing a tool that is highly flexible and provides a high-level structure to manage projects, but it’s not so constraining that we bog people down with endless details.

Planning for innovation requires a perfect balance between constraints and flexibility. And if your team’s role is to innovate, consider ditching the detailed task list and go for a clear and memorable delineation of top constraints, such as:

  • The Challenge or Goal
  • Beginning and End
  • Top activities, milestones or tasks
  • Budget
  • Resources

This high-level structure allows you to iterate and adapt the project as you go, but keep everyone with the goal in mind. The more complex problem is, the bigger the team and/or timeline, the less information people are able to retain about the project. By having high-level plans you are more likely to have your team on the same page all the time and then you can detail out tasks in smaller chunks as the project develops.

This blog post is based on my article on the Future of Work article published on Design Management Institute.

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