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Standardization & Innovation

When I first dipped my toe into the world of Formal Project Management, the kind with fancy software and industry-specific language, I had a mentor who disagreed philosophically with the idea of templates for projects. They would, he archly informed me, stifle the kind of robust conversations the teams needed to develop reliable project plans that addressed the unique needs of each project. Teams would, he felt, simply sit back in their chairs and nod, disengaged and disinterested, as we trotted out the templates, resulting in bloated and unreliable timelines.

I’ve been doing this (formally, anyway) for two whole years now, an eye-blink compared to the careers of many of my colleagues. However, I’m quite good at seeing patterns, and I’ve noticed (and pointed out) that our projects tend to follow fairly predictable paths, at least at a high level. Oh, the indications change, and the “why” and “how” are often unique (that’s why we do what we do, after all!), but the paths we take to answer those questions tend to be quite similar, and we spend an awful lot of time on the standard processes (especially those inherent to doing business in a regulated industry). I believe we can significantly benefit from developing basic archetypes from which to begin the process of project planning.

Innovation tends to require paradigms that are willing to extend outside of “the box”, and taken to extremes, standards can be a bit anathema when it comes to innovation. I’m reminded of a favourite quote by Joseph Newcomer:

"I don't mind occasionally having to reinvent a wheel; I don't even mind using someone's reinvented wheel occasionally. But it helps a lot if it is symmetric, contains no fewer than ten sides, and has the axle centered. I do tire of trapezoidal wheels with offset axles."

By teasing out the common specs of the various wheels… err, projects… we can focus our innovative energies on the areas that benefit most. How can we improve this process for this specific project? How can we creatively sidestep (or at least mitigate) some of the risks (unique or otherwise)? These are the kinds of juicy questions that foster innovative thinking and ground-breaking solutions.

Harmonizing our approach offers an extra measure of security as we’re sinking our teeth into those intriguing challenges inherent in project planning. While innovation is a bit like intellectual anarchy, by bounding that creative process within the known constraints, we can engage in ingenuity while maintaining our focus on project goals. By leveraging that standardization across functional areas, we can also disrupt some of the “translation error” that comes when shifting from one project to another!

In the process, we will probably find new specs for our “wheels”, too, and that's fantastic! Modern vehicles don’t use wooden wheels anymore, after all, and for good reasons! We should continually be tweaking and improving our standardized processes. I’m looking forward to taking our templates out for a spin, and seeing where they can take us!

Like rivers, projects are unique. Also like rivers, projects have some common themes. Leverage those commonalities to drive innovation!

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