Good design succeeds without innovation, but innovation rarely succeeds without good designers.

Good design succeeds without innovation, but innovation rarely succeeds without good designers.

Universities don’t teach how to manage innovation projects. There’s no established best practices for an innovation project management track at PDMA. This might be why companies too often manage innovation projects the same way, and with the same people, as they do their renovation, cost reduction and maintenance projects.
It makes sense, it’s nearly impossible to trace blame for a risky project to the project management function.  Innovation projects are inherently risky and they fail on a regular basis, and there is a natural tendency to blame outside forces instead of poor management decisions. 
When I do post-mortems on innovation products that failed to meet expectation to executive boards this chart is always presented.
Decision Impact Chart
What I usually point out is the point farthest to the left and the highest on the chart. This point is the decision with the greatest impact and lowest cost. It is also the very first decision made. It is the decision on who will be leading the project team. Getting this right gives you the best opportunity for success.
I’ve generally found success with certain type of innovation project manager. It’s related to the truism that good design can succeed without innovation, but innovation rarely succeeds without good design. I’ve found the most successful innovation project managers are ex-product design managers.
In that sentence there are two challenges that prevent just any product designer from being a successful innovation project manager.
The designer mindset prioritizes process steps that have the greatest impact on the end user/customer.  Too often I’ve seen key processes steps such as consumer research, market testing and excellent aesthetic design are easily challenged and mis-managed. However, these innovation project managers must be ex-designers, not active hands-on designers, which means they no longer crave the ownership, or need the ego boost, of being the product’s aesthetic designer. Instead they’re able to be the product visionary while supporting and championing the team’s work.
They were design managers which is to say that they had responsibility for project, team and financial outcomes.  It’s unlikely they have PDMA credentials, but they’ve learned how to get projects done on time and on budget.  Maybe their lack of credentials is to their advantage as they are more adaptable to the needs of each project.
In practicality it is a challenge to recruit these professionals.  Not only are you asking a successful professional to give up one of their passions, but you’re asking them to take on significant career risks without a corresponding increase in compensation.  Too often ex-designer program managers were junior-level designers without adequate experience who ‘did not cut it’ in a studio environment.  I find this profile unprepared to make business decisions and to act authoritatively towards the product’s aesthetic design to the product’s detriment.
Managing innovation projects requires a different approach than any other new product development project.  Innovation projects for all-new products and services experience much greater levels of program risks, technology unknowns and evolving customer requirements. I trust and rely on ex-product design managers because they have been the most effective project managers for the front end innovation projects I am responsible for.

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