This sounds a lot like what is happening in the Powerball lottery. As the payout keeps growing (it is now estimated to be $1.3 billion dollars), I see more and more people spending money they can ill afford to spend on lottery tickets. They then cross their fingers and hope they win; just like this project team kept hoping that one of the ideas they tried might work.
Risk and Reward
Ask any financial adviser and they will demonstrate that an individual will be far better off financially if they took the average amount of money the typical Americans spends each year on lottery tickets and invested that in a sound investment. Yes, someone does eventually win the lottery and they receive a huge payout, but the vast majority of people who buy tickets are losers and the money is wasted.
Even many of the people now buying a lottery ticket will tell you that it is a stupid waste of money. But they are doing it anyway because the payout has become so big. The risk is the same – you are virtually guaranteed to lose your money. But the reward has grown to the point where people are now willing to take the risk.
The reason the reward has grown is because there have been no recent winners. The longer the Powerball lottery goes without a winner, the larger the payout. It was somewhat similar on the innovation project. None of the earlier ideas had been feasible. An idea that gave adequate product performance was too big, or not serviceable. An idea that was the right size, couldn’t meet the specifications. It was like having some of the winning numbers on the lottery ticket but not all of them. The longer the project went without a viable solution, the more management focused on the project. Whoever came up with the idea that would work would be big hero in the company and be well compensated for their idea.
So ideas kept coming. In fact, the project team was growing. People were working overtime. There was a frenzy of activity – most of it wasted effort. The project manager had no control over what was happening. Configuration control of product designs was lost. Testing was analysis was ad hoc and unfocused. Different sub-teams responsible for different components were using incompatible approaches for subsystems that had to integrate with each other. The project manager could no longer even report on project status because he had no idea what many of the people were doing.
Discipline of Project Management
The company had lost sight of the discipline of project management. Just like disciplined investment of money will yield steady predictable growth in the value of a portfolio, disciplined project management will yield steady progress on a project. Starting with a plan and doing regular risk reassessment and pulsing of the project will identify the problems and issues. A disciplined problem solving approach will lead to an understanding of the nature of the problems and point to a solution strategy. Planning the solution and implementing the solution plan keeps the project on track and moving to a successful conclusion.
Granted this isn’t the adrenaline rush of a “Eureka” moment when using disciplined project management on an innovation project. Nor does it lead to the discovery of “heroes” in the business that suddenly emerge by creating the next mega-million jackpot product line. But it will prevent the business from wasting tons of money on worthless ideas. It does provide a predictable approach to innovation and it keeps the project manager and senior management informed and involved.
Incidentally, which project disciplined project management approach you use is not critical. What is most important is that you pick one and use it on your project. Just like there are many financial strategies, there are many innovation project management methodologies. You might prefer stage-gate over Agile. You may be a fan of the PMBOK Guide®, or you may be an advocate of PRINCE2. You may be able to use an industry specific methodology like APQP or IPPD. You may prefer the rigor of Design for Six Sigma or the framework of the SDLC. Pick the one that best fits you industry and culture – then actually use it.
Disciplined project management does not mean nonsensical bureaucracy. It does mean that you have a plan which is followed and updated periodically. It does mean that you do regular risk assessment and variance analysis in order to make tweak the plan. It does mean that you have regular status updates within the team and stakeholders to maintain alignment and integration. These same principles apply to wise financial investing.
Powerball project management is a recipe for disaster. Chasing ideas with no project plan, throwing resources at problems with no structured problem solving approach, and getting caught up in the frenzy of the moment won’t bring you success. Keep in mind, the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot is 1 in 292 million. The odds of Powerball project management leading to a successful innovation are about the same.