Published here July 2013

 

Musings Index

Do We Have Enough Innovative Projects?

No doubt like most people, on a regular basis we receive promotional articles of various kinds. However, what we look for are topics that could be of interest to our project management readership. Sometimes, as in the article that follows, the subject matter was not intended for project managers. However, with a little imagination and modification the advice can be refocused for our audience.

Terry Jones[1] is the innovative baby boomer that transformed the U.S. travel industry with his creation of Travelocity and Kayak.com in 1996. He offers the following advice on "Four Ways to Turn Your Company into an Innovation Machine". However, we think that his suggestions are just as relevant to those creating projects. In fact, projects are the vehicles for achieving Terry's suggestions. But along the way we also learn that the Baby Boomers, once the target of so much marketing and sales pitches, are now passť as they migrate into retirement. In their place are the "Millennials", the now 20 to 33-year-old generation. So here is Terry's advice on ...

Tips for Culture Change

According to Terry,[2] the thinking of nearly 5,000 Millennials is that the world's future leaders overwhelmingly believe that today's businesses can grow only if they can innovate. But today's business leaders are not demonstrating that they are up to the task.[3]

"The future for any business today depends entirely on its ability to innovate, and the youngest adults, 'the idea generation,' know that. The millennials are the group known for pioneering new ideas, rethinking processes, end-running hierarchies and solving problems by doing what simply makes sense to them. We need to listen to them; they're the innovators!" says Terry Jones.

However, Terry says that there are some definite steps business leaders can and should take to ensure their company is hearing employees' ideas, recognizing opportunities, and ensuring a clear path to execution.

  1. Build a culture of experimentation. Not every project will succeed but you can't learn from mistakes if you don't allow them to happen. The corollary: Always analyze what went wrong. Why didn't it work? To use a sports analogy, watch the "game films" to improve and learn as much from failure as you do from success. One fast and easy way to experiment is to test options out online. Whether it's polling customers, measuring which approach gets the best response, or allowing a segment of your customer base to test drive a new tool, the results can be invaluable.
     
  2. Kill projects not people. In many companies, people stop offering up ideas and volunteering for projects because the punishment for failure is greater than the reward for success. Lunch with the boss or a $100 bonus do not compensate for the risk of being demoted or fired, or suffering a tarnished reputation. When a project fails in a company with a culture of experimentation, the first thing you should do is say, "Bob, what would you like to work on now?"!
     
  3. Break through the "Bozone layer".[4] Some of the greatest ideas for innovation will come from the employees on the front lines - those in direct contact with customers or production. But their ideas will never float up to the executive suite if you've created a "Bozone layer" by making it too risky for middle managers to experiment (See previous note). While you're turning the culture around, find ways to reach down to the front lines to solicit ideas. Implement them and reward the contributors with a big, public shout out - that will help you start changing the culture.
     
  4. Install "sensors" to pick up customers' ideas. Don't just look to employees for innovation - learn from your customers as well. They have ideas for new products and new uses for existing products. The customer service complaints department is also a fertile source of ideas for improvement. Listening to social media, or a forum on the company website, is a good sensor for picking up ideas.

    As an example, Glad Wrap's 1000 Uses site is loaded with ideas.[5] For customer service complaints, Travelocity installed a lobby phone booth where anyone in the company could listen in on customer service calls. Once a month, everyone was expected to provide feedback on at least two of those calls, and suggest an improvement to eliminate similar future calls plus a work-around for the interim.

Well, Big Brother may be watching you, but these days, so are all the owners of Smartphones!


1. Terry Jones founded Travelocity.com in 1996. Since 2002, he has served as chairman of the board at Kayak.com, which he also helped found. He is the holder of several patents, has served on the boards of directors of 10 companies and began his career as a travel agent in Chicago. He holds a degree in history from Denison University.
2. Also author of On Innovation (www.tbjones.com/terrys-book), a light-hearted but practical guide for fostering innovation.
3. A study by Deloitte ToucheTohmatsu Limited, published in January 2013, reported that 78 percent believe innovation is crucial for growing businesses. But the worldwide survey of adults born after 1982 found that only 26 percent believe their bosses are doing enough to encourage innovation.
4. An alleged substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating.
5. See www.1000uses.com/index.php?page=1
 
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