I mentioned in the previous article that I was going to build on the thought about product managers and how they can be enablers of innovation. Since then I came upon this article about ways to create a culture of innovation and there is a lot there that lines up with my thoughts on this topic. The first three of the ways to create a culture of innovation listed in the article are quite easily assigned to a project manager’s domain:
- Be intentional with your innovation intent
- Create a structure for unstructured time
- Step in, then step back
To other three are good ideas but more generic to the development group’s team spirit.
For the first method it is fairly straightforward for the product team to assign a percentage of the development budget to innovation. The management team needs to be aware (and agree to) of this type of allocation so they are not surprised when the CEO drops by for a visit and is told by the team that it has a new innovative idea to show and it is a sanctioned part of the program. However, this part of the budget should not be the first to be cannibalized for overruns, delays, etc. If it is, the innovation spirit dies with it. This time should be managed and planned by the team itself in how it will make use of it for design, prototyping, testing, etc – BUT the product manager is best situated in the ecosystem to help prioritize, track progress and lubricate the wheels of the business when any outside assistance may be helpful.
The second way of managing unstructured time within a project is again within the scope of the product manager because s/he understands the cadence of the program and can set expectation for sprints within the project. Assuring that team members have some planned time to work on innovative ideas is critical to the culture of the team. In most cases if the team sees that there is an effort to promote ideas from within, they will spend a lot more of their own time working on them. This is a win-win.
Finally, in the third way of “Give just enough structure and support to help people navigate uncertainty and tap into the creative process without stifling it”, product managers are skilled at providing a light touch of structure to development teams. Product managers walk the balance beam of setting hard requirements and encouraging innovative solutions.
So my assertion is that product managers usually have the appropriate mindset and skills to be able to promote the innovation track within product teams. The important premises of this type of program are that the innovation may not be associated directly with the current product and each innovation phase may not end up as a killer product/concept. The concept of failing forward is critical in these programs. An idea that is tried and found failing is a valuable experience for the whole business and is a steppingstone (catch the stone reference!) to an ultimate successful result. There are data points in the above article that product teams that have these innovation tracks will consistently deliver good results because they know there is space for them to potentially deliver the “the next best thing” for the business.