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Are you a Champion for Innovation?

By - Sumant Chaudhari, Director - Application Services, Dell

Sumant Chaudhari
Are project managers viewed as champions of innovation? Your life is all about managing projects with geographically dispersed teams, seemingly impossible deadlines, employee attrition, skills shortages, demanding customers, and just about every risk to a date you promised. Remember, you are always supposed to overcome all these constraints and deliver on time and with a smile on your face and a “wow” in customer satisfaction survey. Now when you are asked to innovate to transform the company into its new version, what would you say? I do not want to answer this question for you.
The pace of change has accelerated for businesses, more so in last two decades. For example the product cycles are getting shorter ; customers want services delivered on a short notice, pay for only what they used, and tie the price they pay to the business benefit they derive. Technology business has witnessed disruptive innovations which changed business models and the way we live and work. For majority of businesses, continuous innovation has become the only way to transform a business for adapting to a change. Innovate or Die is not an exaggeration.
A21 Many of us in India work for the IT Services industry, which has become very competitive in the recent years and the call for transforming this industry from a 'cost arbitration model' to an 'intellectual property' based industry is louder than ever. Such transformation in an industry like IT Services is much more complex and significant than a product company. An IT Services company is about people providing services and their relationship with client personnel. Changing how people work and having the client look at you differently are two significant shifts. One way to transform is to embrace a sustained and disciplined culture of continuous innovation.

Innovation is more about evolution than revolution. Many companies and individuals hold back from actively engaging into building a culture of innovation because myths such as - Innovation is about breakthrough products, Innovation needs investment, and Innovation is for upper management to drive across the organization. Upper management has to be committed to support and encourage the innovation and at times may have to spend some money to make it effective, but none of the above myths should hold anyone back. Each business needs to build its own culture of innovation in its own context and based on its own ability. I would like to share my experience in building a culture of innovation. Also, I would like to highlight the opportunities project managers have in being the champions of Innovation.


In our context - Innovation is finding new and better ways of solving problems to help our customers while making our organization more competitive. It could be an improved process, automation or tool, a valued feature in product which customer did not ask for, or more. The following are three characteristics of a successful culture of innovation:


1. Customer Centricity - Innovation needs to benefit a customer, directly or indirectly.

2. Employee Engagement - Innovation programs should engage, encourage, and recognize every employee in making a difference. It is absolutely critical in the IT Services business.

3. Enterprise Asset - Innovation should contribute toward building assets for an enterprise which will gradually make it more competitive.


The above three are interconnected. It ispossible that your employees are making improvements for the customers but are neither engaged with nor contributing their learnings to the enterprise. Similarly, you could be creating enterprise assets that have no value for the customers. The key is to have the above three overlap as much as possible in everything you do. Imagine if all the three have complete overlap, your competitor cannot beat you.


To be successful at innovation, Employee Engagement is the single most important factor. Project is how majority of the work happens in our business. With tight deadlines and changing expectations, working on projects become all about tasks, hard work, pushing everyone to the limits. Many times team members simply get burned out and disengage, the estimates start going up due to playing safe, and quality suffers. In most cases, employees get absorbed in customer environment and completely disengage from the organization. This is where the managers come in. Innovation Program can be used for connecting with them and thus connecting them to the organization. Project managers work with front line teams and directly with customers. They have tremendous influence on team member performance as well as performance assessments. Unfortunately, most project managers play task masters and keep relationships with the team members limited to reporting status. Project managers should help the team members understand innovation in the project context, encourage creativity, and above all recognize small and large contributions. They can make it more interesting by having contests, presentations, debates to motivate the employees.


There is also an opportunity lost when project teams do not capture the small and large value add and present these to the customers. The responses we get - customer expects it, we are just doing our job, we cannot quantify the benefits, etc. The customer is always looking for an attitude where we continuously add value to their business and not the actual monitory benefit an improvement made. A joint recognition program with customers or even a contest for an account could also go a long way in both employee engagement and customer delight. Again, this is in the project manager's circle of influence.


We have seen hesitation in highlighting automation and time savings to the customers with a fear that it will result in loss of business or customer expecting more work the next time. From our experience, the customers where we added more value have awarded us more work. If savings happen in one area, they will give us work in other area rather than taking the money off the table. Some discretion in sharing is fine, but fear of loss of business should never underplay the drive for innovation.


One more excuse for lack of engagement in innovation programs from project teams is that they are overloaded. Many best innovations and automations have come from challenged projects for us. Surprisingly, creativity comes out when you do not have adequate resources. Automation comes out when work is laborious and boring. Process improvements come out when you find teams are idling for resources. Tight deadlines can be taken up as a challenge to find a better solution with given constraints. Constraints also foster better collaboration within the team and looking outside the team for ideas. Innovation cannot be viewed as a separate activity from your daily work; it is very much embedded and needs to be recognized.


Just like everything else, the attitude of continuous improvement needs to be developed in individuals and teams. When small improvements get recognized, large ones come through. Nothing breeds success like success. As a project manager, if you can meaningfully engage a team of 15 across multiple geographies using innovation program and successfully raise the bar, you can succeed with 150 people and eventually this can be repeated for 15,000. Every corporate role has elements of project these days - you have deadlines, your actions need to help customers, and you have teams to execute your objectives through, the constraints even grow bigger, Innovation becomes even more critical. Learning and growing on the projects can be valuable and infinitely scalable. There is no tool to shape your professional career like Innovation Programs.


Now I want you to ask the question - Can you be a champion for Innovation? I want to leave you with what Henry Ford said 'If you think you can do a thing or you can't do a thing, you are right'. .