Sunday, June 28, 2009

Innovation, is it really so important?

Last Friday , at the Solvay annual MBA gala in Brussels I was asked what the word innovation meant to me. Instead of giving an answer there and then, I asked for some time to consider the question, after all it was late and topics such as this are not the lightest to handle after a couple of glasses of wine.

I remember reading, just the other week, that ‘all companies need to innovate themselves out of the recession’ and I wondered what the world would be like if they could? If the solution could ever be that simple and if innovation were to be treated like a commodity, why didn’t we simply bring in the professional innovators? After all, it is all too easy to criticize and yet so difficult to propose a solution or an original idea.

With whole websites geared over to innovation (such as: and people speaking about innovation as if they had invented it for themselves, it got me wondering…

Firstly I want to share with you, the Chambers’ dictionary definition of innovation, just so that we cannot have any misunderstandings:
I quote: ‘Innovate: v.t. to renew, alter: to introduce something as new… a novelty, the substitution of one obligation for another.’ So this definition does not help us much. Wikkipedia tells us: ‘The term innovation means a new way of doing something. It may refer to incremental, radical, and revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations.’ – Now that’s more like it!

It is important, however, that we do not get carried away with the second definition and confuse invention and innovation. To 'invent' almost implies creating something out of nothing, as in research and development. Whereas, in the truest sense of the word, 'innovation' is more about using the crux of something that already exists but in a new and different way. And this, to me, defines innovation as possibly the most important tool (or concept) for gaining increased efficiency and new hope into tired businesses and projects.

So 'yes' is the answer to my question, without doubt. Innovation is absolutely essential for taking something that is broken and putting it to good use, maybe even for something that it was never originally intended for. If you link this concept to personnel, it is not a giant leap to imagine that for people that are de-motivated; that possibly worry if they will still have a job at Christmas, or feel that the skills they have are no longer suited to what society is needing right now, you do not need to have a Phd to realize that it is innovation that they need to re-invent belief and their own self net worth. To be truly innovative we need to be open minded, confident, daring and certainly not risk averse.

So when you see people taking on responsibility, even for what might seem as a daft idea, and when you hear people say “What the heck, it’s worth a try, what have we got to loose?” Then you know that hope has infiltrated its way into your project or business. And as long as you do not dampen out the creative flames with bureaucracy and sarcasm, then you stand a good chance of survival. Because first ideas are often crazy, but soon people gather round to watch the madness and in doing so offer help and make suggestions with the frequent result that is often both surprising and profitable. What’s more, it was ‘their’ idea and not yours and ‘they’ will work and work in order to show you that they have a worth, a vision, an idea, a possible way forward.

(To misquote Tennyson’s in memoriam) it is better to have tried and fail, than never to have tried at all.
Wishing you an innovative week,


Monday, June 22, 2009

When is your project ready for go-live?

‘You don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows’, but give the same source data to a number of different weather forecasters and nine days out of ten – you’ll end up with differing predictions (unless, perhaps, you’re living in the Sahara).
Assuming the above is true, then how can we rationally and safely know when a complex project is ready for go-live, especially if the decision to go or not to go, can have a major impact upon the business? As my MBA students know, at the beginning of any project I ask myself three questions:
1. What is the problem we are solving?
2. How will we know when it is solved?
3. How will we measure it?
This is basically a dramatic over simplification of a business case – but they are the three questions that are most overlooked. Hence, early on, I build a slide deck that I will use at the very end of the project at go-live decision making time and again at the end of the evaluation phase.
The answer to the question is that the PM should not make a decision because he, or she, alone does not know exactly when to go live. Instead he guides his Project Board into making a unanimous decision, based upon very specific sign off criteria.
The format of the decision making process should be displayed in a slide deck with one or two slides per measuring point, with a summary slide that covers the whole topic at the end or beginning. An important part of this exercise is that the sign off criteria has to be formulated and agreed way in advance by each member of the Project Board, based upon specialist advice from the experts below each and every one of them.
No one member of the project board is exempt from taking on the ownership of ensuring the well being of the business. This has nothing to do with apportioning blame but everything to do with collective responsibility, involvement and personal commitment.
So when is your project ready for go-live? What criteria do you use – it’s worth thinking about, long before your next crunch time comes!
Have a good week,


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Planning ahead – what’s the point? It’s provisioning that we need

Every professional project manager knows that the secret to a successful project lies, for a very large part, in good planning. And I for one would say nothing to suggest otherwise. However, there’s a very poignant Jewish joke that sometimes returns to haunt me. Question: “How do you make God laugh?” Answer: “You tell him your plans”.

This is not the kind of joke that has you rolling over with laughter but a kind of double action joke that affects you on multiple levels. On the one hand the idea of God being able to see your future and that he cruelly takes pleasure in being able to laugh out loud as to how wrong you are. And on the other hand, on a more cynical level, where you yourself can look back and laugh (or cry) at the vision you once had and how it has turned out so differently.

I guess there maybe some people (purely based upon the law of averages) that for them, everything goes to plan? But for the most of us, this is clearly not the case. This does not however mean that things necessarily turn out for the worse – quite the contrary. Even in our biggest tragedies comes new hope, new ideas, and even new life.

The point I am making is this: Both in our business and in our personal life, there is no point in making very detailed, long term plans for the future. If you have ambition and you know what you want you should set out a strategy, not a plan, to best try and reach it. I suggest the following:
1. Understand very clearly where you are right now
2. Work hard on developing a clear and plausible vision as to where you want to be
3. Formulate a very clear strategy
4. Ensure you maintain discipline and follow rigorously your short term planning
5. Make provisions for the future

Every adventurer knows that they need a plan, but every adventurer quickly realizes that plans need to be constantly adjusted and revised in order to keep the long term vision in sight. But more important than plans are provisions. We need just enough provisions to keep us going through the rough times but not too much that they weigh us down or make us lazy. And this is the delicate balance that most businesses are facing right now.

So when planning for the future, think in terms of strategy and not detailed plans. And when you have plans, be prepared to change them for the sake of the long term vision. However, the one thing you should never compromise on is ensuring that you have sufficient provisions for yourself and those that depend upon you. Only a fool risks their own life, let alone, the lives of others by setting off with insufficient provisions to reach their next base.

Have a good week,


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Who needs Optimists?

I am not sure which is worse, being surrounded by optimists or by pessimists? Both types are enough to drive me nuts.

HR recruiters are always looking for optimistic candidates – self starters with big ideas and imagination – all sounds great, but…

Too many people confuse the word optimism with enthusiasm. I used to be an optimist, but over the years I a find myself becoming more and more of a realist. Sure, I believe I can do almost anything in my head, but I have learned from experience to separate dreaming from the reality of being awake.

Optimists are very often lazy. They tend to think that somehow, simply by being optimistic, things will get done. Enthusiastic people, on the other hand, enjoy a challenge. They think about the hard work ahead of them, but it does not frighten them. They are not afraid of pain. The mountain they are facing is a massive challenge waiting to be concurred. For an optimist, the mountain is nothing more than a hill and almost anyone could climb it, if they really wanted to.

Perhaps the solution is to ask HR to recruit enthusiastic people only? Or is it? What blend of people types do we need to form the perfect change project team?

Assuming a project team of 10 is needed, I suggest the following blend:

1 x visionary with a deep knowledge of the environment
1 x optimist with charismatic leadership and an ego that can adopt someone else’s vision
5 x enthusiasts , each with the necessary key skills to do the task (preferably with at least one or two with a good, balanced, sense of humor)
2 x pragmatic realists (planners and performance analysts)
And finally:
1 x pessimist to highlight each and every hazard and thus to become the one person for everyone to get pissed at, thereby uniting the entire group, whilst keeping them from danger!

Enjoy your week!