The Role of Innovation in Project Management

Innovation, as a management competency, is difficult to define. In a business sense, the term “innovation” usually refers to the translation of an idea into a commercially viable product—perpetuating the idea that only the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and other visionaries can attain the rank of Innovator. On the other hand, the dictionary definition (“to do something in a new way”) is far too broad to be useful—after all, many a “creative” idea has failed to produce real value.

Consider the mechanical bread slicer. Given the ubiquity of the phrase, “the best thing since sliced bread,” it may surprise some to learn that sliced bread had an inauspicious beginning. Invented in the early 1920s by Iowa man Otto Rohwedder, the mechanical bread slicer was widely panned by early adopters as impractical and unwieldy. Customers in stores felt that pre-sliced bread was “sloppy looking,” owing to the fact that once the bread was sliced, it was difficult to hold the bread together long enough to neatly package. Bakers tried everything from rubber bands to metal pins to display their sliced bread—nothing seemed to attract consumers. The problem remained until St. Louis baker Gustav Papendick set out to improve the device, finally settling on a cardboard tray that would hold the bread together long enough for mechanized wrapping machines to function (Voorhees, 2004).

The mechanical bread slicer, on its own, was not an innovation. It was creative, certainly, but it failed to deliver real value to the customer. Likewise, the rubber bands and pins were not an innovation—they were incremental improvements that added value but did not constitute breakthrough thinking. It was not until Papendick combined the bread slicer (a creative idea) with the cardboard tray (a breakthrough improvement) that real value was added. Using this as our guide, this paper will define innovation as generating and implementing ideas that add value to the organization.

The first part of the definition—generating and implementing ideas—distinguishes innovation from mere improvement. Continuous improvement adds value, but does not always entail generating new ideas. There are many reasons—both internal and external—why a department or company might improve regardless of the presence or absence of creative thinking. The second part of the definition—generating and implementing ideas, which add value—distinguishes innovation from mere creativity. While project managers may need to rely on creative thinking to innovate, it is just as likely that they will need to draw upon data and logic. Everyday innovation occurs at the intersection of creativity and improvement.


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