Project Management and Innovation

NASA puts on an outstanding training event every year for aspiring Project Managers.  About 1200 folks, both teachers and students, rendezvoused last week near the Kennedy Space Center for an intense two days of classes and panels on how to be a successful project manager.

The fundamentals of project management were firmly reinforced:  have a good plan, stick to requirements, control costs, provide schedule margin in high risk areas, etc.

It got me to thinking about how Project Management 101 could be seen as a barrier to innovation. 

When building something that has never been built before, innovation is critically important.   Innovation at all stages of a project is vital for the end product to be cost effective and carry out its intended function.  But what kind of innovation, and when, and how much?  There is the rub. 

In the barriers to innovation video that I referenced in an earlier blog post, one of the “evil supervisor” stops to innovative ideas was flatly state:  “there is no requirement for this”.   Anybody who has been to project management 101 knows that requirements creep has killed many a worthy project. 

Having a better idea, adding just one more function, tweaking the design through just one more iteration — all these things are wonderful, marvelous, the very lifebreath of a successful project — right up until the point where they kill the project by driving it way over budget, way behind schedule, or into an endless technology development cycle. 

Need a down to earth example?  Ok, but don’t spread this one around or it will get me in real trouble!  My wife came to me several  months ago with the requirement to replace the carpet in our dining room.  Well, the stuff is 20 years old and looks pretty ratty.  So I agreed; we decided on a budget, went shopping at the carpet store.  Our project was to replace the carpet, within a budget, certainly within a schedule (before next Thanksgiving!). 

Then a new requirement popped out:  before changing the carpet the walls should be painted.  Certainly makes sense; fresh paint was needed.  Nobody in their right mind replaces carpet first and paints later.  But adding this new requirement meant that the schedule  stretched out and the budget increased!  But there is more!  It only makes sense to replace the drapes, too.  One shouldn’t put old, dusty drapes back up when the paint is fresh and the carpet is new!  So another new requirement has been added, costs go up, schedule gets stretched out . . . and in the meantime the carpet we liked got discontinued by the factory.  Now, new carpet must be picked, at a higher price . . . .

Congress passed an act a number of years ago which decreed that a project more than a certain percentage over budget or behind schedule should be cancelled.  That is where we are with the dining room.  Got to descope the requirements and try again.

But on the other hand, without appropriate innovation and upgrades, projects may succeed in building something less than what we could.  Something that costs too much to operate, for example, or fails to have an important feature that wasn’t included because of an oversight.

Summarily dismissing any new idea because “there is no requirement for this” is clearly wrong.  Nobody gets the requirements perfectly right the first time,  no matter how hard you try.

So, the art of project management includes listening to proposed innovators and thoroughly evaluating their ideas.  Unfortunately a lot of good ideas get left in the trash.  Not because they were not good ideas, but because at some point, somebody has to draw the line and say this much is good enough; we can’t afford any more. 

That is a conversation that is hard to have.  But it is important.


Akin’s laws of spacecraft design:

 #4. Your best design efforts will inevitably wind up being useless in the final design. Learn to live with the disappointment.

#13. Design is based on requirements. There’s no justification for designing something one bit “better” than the requirements dictate.

Yep, I think Dr. Akin is pretty smart.

8 thoughts on “Project Management and Innovation”

  1. Project Management Change of Requirements……I doubt Orion will have carpet in it….so get rid of your carpet and sand/stain the floor boards underneath it (assuming you have floor boards underneath). If have floor boards then paint walls before removing carpet (so use the old carpet as a drop sheet). Restores Schedule, reduces cost and provides a possibly better outcome (floor easier to clean, less dust)

    Can’t offer any advise on curtains – are they a mission requirement?

    P. Savio

  2. When I did my co-op year (industrial placement as we called it in Britain) I worked for a defense company. I spent a few weeks in their Quality Dept and there I met a chap called Roger. He taught me two things that I consider to be very useful but more importantly germane to this matter.

    Firstly, Quality-with-a-capital-Q is “conformance to requirements at minimum cost” which I’d say is another way of putting Dr Akin’s #13 – I have to go find the list these came from because I expect I’ll learn some cool things from reading it.

    Secondly, you should ask yourself two questions as you assess your project. “Are we building the right product?” which I take to mean making sure your defined requirements meet the problem you’re trying to solve. “Are we building the product right?” which means ensuring your analysis, design etc serve the requirements.

    It’s a rare project where the requirements never change, but some are more prone to that than others; when time is short so the problem at hand could not be evaluated thoroughly, when the problem is difficult enough that there are open research matters involved, when the problem is subjective (I make videogames; fun is a huge and largely intangible factor). Thus the project process has to be flexible enough to handle changes in the requirements. The trick is making it flexible enough for the biggest change that will actually come but no more. This adds risk, but if the reward is big enough (producing a better product that solves a more elaborate problem) it’s the right thing to do.

  3. Your carpeting example isn’t really an case of requirement creep; rather it’s simply one of the most basic premises of married life, i.e., keep Mother happy, cause if Mother isn’t happy then nobody’s happy…

    I really enjoy reading you blog so please don’t let ‘Big Brother’ (or anybody else) influence what subjects you choose to write about.

  4. Fascinated to read about your take on Project Management 🙂

    As a PM myself, I can relate to all your points with a chuckle and a wince at the same time… Been there, done that ad nauseam 🙂

    I was just wondering what Nasa’s take on Agile Project Management is/would be?

    The agile “idea” seeks to counter a lot of the issues you raise in your posting and that we all face at some point in time – namely the fact that humans aren’t perfect, and hence can’t produce the perfect requirements spec 🙂

    As PM’s we need to acknowledge and plan for this fact and then have the right tools to handle the change when it comes to our project…

  5. sounds like the old project of working on the auto …
    just needs plugs ?
    then wires?
    then distributor parts?
    while we are at it and all dirty , may as well change the oil…
    make that all the fluids …

    so a project with a 50 dollar budget goes to one with a 500 dollar budget.

    and I agree, this has to stop somewhere. some projects demand to be OVER delivered , but most do not require anywhere near the over design.

    there a chance to spout off

  6. Wayne, your example of “creep” is a fairly good example of how Mr. Murphy creeps into a relatively ordinary undertaking. But you forgot to add in the unexpected. For example…you’ve made your plans, but when you pull up the carpet, you discover that carpenter ants have gotten into the floorboards. Now what seemed simple becomes a real nightmare, as you now have to hire someone to determine the extent of the infestation and the damage it’s caused. Suddenly, the carpet project goes on hold while it’s determined whether the floor itself is sound.
    I don’t know if your house is built on a concrete slab or has a foundation and a basement, but if it is the latter, now the basement ceiling joists are suspect as well.

    Voila…your once-simple project has experienced the unexpected, and not only is your timeframe blown out the window but your budget went along with it. Surprise, surprise.

    NASA designs and builds unique machines for a unique purpose. While some of the requirements are known, such as that a human-rated capsule must be airtight, some are discovered along the way, much as the Apollo 1 fire forced a complete redesign of the capsule.

    Yes, it costs money, but you either invest the money or you accomplish nothing and stay home.

    Serious spacecraft share a common bond with computers: by the time you get it out the door, it’s obsolete.

  7. My PM issues come from levels of management above who don’t know what they want and suffer from “shinny ball” syndrome. Attention is taken by the next bright object that comes rolling past.

    ….and every project is top priority.

  8. Yeah all that rings true for me too both at home and work. wives and bosses seem to be somehow intrinsically linked. weird that!! we now have a contigency fun built into all projects of 50% for the very reason you say that things move on and you could be in the middle of a long project when technology has moved on or fads change and you HVAE to adjust. this is one of the requirements of PM that you have to be flexible, needs to account for this and create the best Pms in the future we can.

    By the way my living room is now in a state of half readiness and has been for 2 months now. where is a plasterer when you need one!

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