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Creating Creativity


Reflection Plus Risk: A Recipe for Innovation

By working to keep random thoughts and urges from controlling us, we can focus our energy towards the results we want in our lives. “The price of this freedom… is long training and discipline,” Zen Master Philip Kapleau wrote.

Despite this, many business teams resist formal procedures or project management, especially teams dependent on creativity. Discipline and innovation are incompatible, they seem to think. But teams that careen from idea to idea believing this is the way to creative solutions are shooting themselves in the bottom line. They are like a squirrel confused by an approaching car, changing directions again and again to escape it. Besides wasting a lot of energy, the results often are, shall we say, deflating. I am reminded of American inventor Thomas Edison’s famous saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” He also said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Both of these quotations from a man with more than 1,000 U.S. patents suggest that reflecting on past success and failure can be as important to innovation as it is in personal growth.

That’s why I chose to open this science-based post with a Zen quote. A key component of Zen is mindfulness, which is simply keeping your mind on what is going on in this moment. Two psychologists (Jacobs and Blustein) wrote in 2008, “The three key elements of mindfulness are awareness, being in the present moment, and acceptance. Awareness is further broken down into three components: stopping, observing, and returning. Stopping refers to halting those automatic behaviors that arise from automatic thoughts.”

A study from last year indicates that stopping, reflecting, and planning next steps based on what was learned leads to greater innovation. Les Tien-Shang Lee of Kun Shan Univ. in Taiwan and Badri Munir Sukoco at Airlangga Univ. in Indonesia surveyed 200 leaders of new product development (NPD) teams based at a science park in Taiwan. To entice people to respond, they offered a chance to win a buffet for four at a five-star restaurant! The questions allowed the researchers to compare the newness and uniqueness of a team’s products to its members’ knowledge base, project management skills, risk-taking, and “team reflexivity.” Lee and Sukoco quote another researcher in saying reflexivity “‘includes behaviors such as questioning, planning… reviewing past events with self-awareness, and coming to terms over time with a new awareness.'”

All of these, I note, are encouraged by the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). A well-run project team routinely stops to reflect on what it has learned and uses those lessons to plan future work. In Scrum teams, a “Retrospective Ceremony” happens every one to four weeks.

Lee and Sukoco’s survey revealed a strong correlation between reflexivity and product innovation. However, risk-taking played a role in that relationship. You may think you know what “risk” is, but I found the authors’ discussion of the concept thought-provoking (citations are omitted):

“Risk in the entrepreneurship literature relates to the issues of venturing into the unknown or committing large resources for unknown results. In the context of NPD, risk is associated with the changing of beliefs and routines regarding (the) newly developed product. Risk is inevitable in the NPD process since the outcome cannot be known beforehand, even though too much risk may be harmful… (A) new product may fail in the marketplace but if no risks are taken, no new products will ever be marketed.”

Not surprisingly, the surveyed teams that took greater risks also produced more innovative products according to their leaders. High reflexivity plus high risk-taking equated to the highest levels of product newness and uniqueness. But reflexivity was so important, low-risk teams created products nearly as innovative as high risk-takers if they stopped to reflect on their results and apply the lessons. In fact, teams with high product knowledge and project management skills were more innovative only if they took the time to reflect.

By itself the study is too limited in size and methods to constitute proof, but it illustrates the direction research is taking in a way that might help you get more creativity from your team. In the next topic, I suggest that PM techniques were born in the chaotic search for a working atomic bomb design despite a huge number of options and technology hurdles. Like it or not, the project produced the intended result in a short three years.

If you are using project management in your work, don’t wait until the end of the project to hold a lessons-learned meeting. Hold one at least monthly, and at the end of the session ask how the team’s project plans should be changed to apply the lessons. If you are not using project management, at least borrow the concept of the Retrospective from Agile software development. Every two to four weeks, hold a meeting in which you answer as a team these three questions:

  • What has gone right since the last retrospective?
  • What has not gone well?
  • What should we do differently until the next “retro?”

Then create a list of action items for implementing those changes. I think you will quickly come to value the way stopping helps you to move forward.


  • Jacobs, S., and D. Blustein (2008), “Mindfulness as a Coping Mechanism for Employment Uncertainty,” The Career Development Quarterly 57:174.
  • Kapleau, P. (1980), Zen Dawn in the West. Anchor Books: Garden City, N.Y. (p. 214).
  • Lee, L., and B. Sukoco (2011), “Risk-Taking as a Moderator of the Effect of Team Reflexivity on Product Innovation: An Empirical Study,” International Journal of Management 28(4):263.

Project Management and Innovation, Past and Future

I understand why teams resist using formal project management like task definition and planning for risks. Some project managers are more focused on paperwork than people, on meeting the project’s objectives than pleasing the customer and team members. They resist major changes to the work requirements (the “scope”) because of the impact on time and budget, even when there are good reasons for the changes. Some teams resist project management because they think “we don’t know enough” about the final result for it to work.

Admitting my bias as a certified project manager, I believe this is another example of BWBS (“Baby with Bathwater Syndrome”) thinking. The fact that some project managers (PMs) are inflexible does not counter the value of project management any more than poor software developers diminish the value of software development. Done right, project management remains the only way to obtain a defined deliverable at the best balance of quality, time, and price. Agile methods embrace change to focus on customer satisfaction. Furthermore, two European business researchers argued in an article in California Management Review, there is no reason project management cannot have a role in tasks with many unknowns. Sylvain Lenfle and Christoph Loch say the discipline was born while creating innovation and developing strategy along with the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. Lenfle is with the Univ. of Cergy-Pontoise and Ecole Polytechnique, and Christoph Loch is at INSEAD, a global graduate business school.

As of 1942 when the project began, no one had a clue about the best way to build an atomic bomb. Lead scientist Robert Oppenheimer outlined no fewer than five different designs in a seminar that year, and the estimate for how much nuclear material was needed varied by a factor of ten. The PM, Gen. Leslie Groves, later wrote, “‘My position could well be compared with that of a caterer who is told he must be prepared to serve anywhere between ten and a thousand guests,'” Lenfle and Loch report. The project’s scientists weren’t even sure which of two nuclear materials to use, or how best to refine them.

So the project tried everything. This became known as “concurrency,” Lenfle and Loch say: “the simultaneous (or overlapped) performance of logically sequential tasks.” This would be dismissed as a waste of time and money today, they write. But picking any one approach would likely have wasted far more. As these efforts reduced the uncertainty around the project, less viable options were abandoned. Suppose one of them had been the only one chosen. The project likely would have failed, because it would have taken too much time to try each option in sequence. The result of a concurrent approach was a project that went from vast uncertainty to two workable results in three years. (The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was of a different design and core material than the Nagasaki one.)

Two later missile projects were developed much the same way. One introduced the Program Evaluation and Review Technique that waterfall project managers will recognize as the PERT method for estimating project length. But Lenfle and Loch say this was more of a political maneuver than a real exercise in project control. As they quote from a book on the Polaris missile project, “‘The image of managerial efficiency helped the project,'” or rather helped sell the project to Congress.

Things changed when former Ford Motor Company head Robert McNamara became U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1961. The department shifted to a more cost-focused business sense, tools such as phased project plans, and use of fixed-price contracts that pushed the risk of cost overruns onto contractors. Over time, strategic decisions (like which bomb design to pursue) were moved out of the realm of project management and into the hands of high-level planners. “Project management’s role was henceforth to execute given missions…” Lenfle and Loch write. The development of the Project Management Institute (PMI, of which I am a member) in 1969 eventually codified this approach into what is known as the “project life cycle.” Lenfle and Loch define the cycle as “phases that projects go through, each having an outcome and end-review that triggers a decision about whether to start the next one.” It “takes the mission and goals as given” and works to meet the estimates for “scope, time, and cost.”

They support this model when the targets and capabilities of the project are well known and the tasks fairly easy to define. But they say PMs have given up the role they once had in determining strategy and creating innovation when uncertainty is high. Parallel trial projects helped Japanese countries overtake U.S. counterparts in automobiles and electronics. They have been used successfully to choose the best application for a new metal surface-finishing process and to create an assembly line as efficient with older workers as another with younger ones, a response to an aging workforce. These projects chose solutions instead of merely implementing them. “When discussing such examples,” the article says, “professional project managers view them as either ‘special’ (e.g., applying only to chaotic start-ups) or simply ‘sloppy’ (‘Why did they not perform better risk planning beforehand?’).”

But I think the profession is shifting back. The authors fail to mention Agile. PMI now has a certification in Agile (which I hold) and has released an Agile Guide in tandem with the PMBOK. The authors themselves note a relatively recent study of six manufacturing firms in which “projects addressed not only processes and methods, but also the product/market position.”

Lenfle and Loch say the project management discipline is in a “self-imposed ‘order taker niche'” due to historical accident rather than conscious decision. Perhaps a conscious decision to reintroduce trial-and-error and concurrent projects—or better, adopt Agile methods—in circumstances where uncertainty is high, like those in which formal project management were born, will expand the value of the profession and make it an easier sell to those who resist its cost-effective charms.

Source: Lenfle, S, and C. Loch (2010), “Lost Roots: How Project Management Came to Emphasize Control Over Flexibility and Novelty,” California Management Review 53(1):32.

For more suggestions, see the “Solution Creativity.”

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