The emerging role of an innovation project manager

by David Richmond, on 1 May 2019 5 min read

People factors: Innovative projects have their own challenges in terms of how delivery teams are organised and stakeholders engaged

In another extract from his Guide To Managing Innovative Projects, David Richmond explores the role of an innovation manager in project delivery and the coordination of various teams and stakeholders involved.

Innovative projects have their own challenges in terms of how delivery teams are organised and stakeholders engaged. How this is done will depend on many factors but a few points to consider are listed below:

  • The complexity of an innovation project often requires the involvement of diverse skills and experience from across the organisation. These skills are not always locally available resulting in a distributed team. Remote working practices such as regular video and audio conference meetings and the use of team tools such as Trello, Slack and others need to be leveraged to make project delivery and communication as effective as possible. An additional overhead for project management and coordination should, therefore, be factored in.
  • Senior stakeholders need to be coached on the reasoning and benefits of methodologies associated with delivering innovative projects. At least one senior stakeholder should be well versed and act as an advocate for innovation. Stakeholders must also be made aware of agile approaches and how they can support agile projects. Agile is not something that can function at the delivery level only. Agile values must also be embraced by leadership in the organisation.
  • Delivering innovation will usually require new skills that the organisation does not possess. This might relate to new technology, agile approaches and unfamiliar software. Online training can quickly help to re-skill existing teams and there are a number of online platforms such as and These can help to fill skills gaps quickly and inexpensively.

"An innovation process can be managed by an innovation team, but innovation is delivered by resources from across the organisation"

  • Matrix teams are unavoidable in complex organisations and delivering innovation is no exception. Despite agile principles suggesting that teams should be colocated and focused on a single project, this is not always possible. The primary challenge associated with a matrix team in an innovation context is justifying the priority of innovation. Business as usual (BAU) will frequently take precedence over innovation because innovation relates to some future benefit, while BAU must be maintained on a day to day basis. When issues occur innovation is often de-prioritised. This can lead to innovation projects being continually impacted by issue resolution on BAU projects. Some way of protecting allocated resources from BAU issues must be agreed so that the innovation project is not unduly impacted. If resources must be drawn away then their time away should be logged as 'resource debt' and re-payed once the business issue is resolved. This, of course, does not help with the negative impact and interruption to project flow so it should be logged as a risk and additional mitigation and contingency actions identified. Senior management should also be supportive of the importance of innovation and therefore 'borrowing' resources should be discouraged.
  • Dedicated innovation teams can provide focus on innovation but they can also become disconnected from the wider organisation. If an innovation team becomes a silo it will be difficult to influence and manage resources from across the business. An innovation process can be managed by an innovation team, but innovation is delivered by resources from across the organisation. Innovation teams must, therefore, be empowered and should build effective relationships to avoid becoming too far removed from the business.
The Innovation Project Manager

The innovation project manager must have additional skills and responsibilities compared to a conventional project manager. Although roles and responsibilities will vary, some common differences are highlighted in the table below:

Project Manager Innovation Project Manager
Develops detailed plans Develops emergent high-level plans
Estimates and controls budget to deliver entire project Estimates budget required on a stage by stage basis
Controls time management of project resources Coordinates value delivery of project products (often done in association with a Product Owner)
Breaks down deliverables into stages and tasks Defines and coordinates project stages and releases so that sprints or sub-stages achieve value
Change often perceived as issues or risks Change embraced as potentially positive
Monitor progress against plans Monitor progress against value and continually justify project
Document management, version control and delivery of progress/exception reports Light-weight documentation and informal reporting where possible
Focused on project delivery and handover to BAU Focused on idea management process and value delivery
Team management and leadership Servant leadership and coaching
Aligned to project team to achieve project delivery Aligned to customer to achieve value delivery
Responsible for project delivery May have additional responsibility for idea management process including projects, portfolio and innovation capability management
Responsibility for solution ends when project ends and handover is complete Remains actively consulted and informed on value after project is delivered
Frequently uses waterfall based project approaches, sometimes uses Agile Mostly uses Agile based project approaches
Uses tools such as risk registers, issue registers, Gantt charts, product breakdown structures, critical path and planning meetings Uses tools such as collaborative planning, visual information boards, kanban boards, burn charts and stand up meetings
Responsible for delivering one or two major projects Often focused on delivering multiple innovation projects all at different stages

Photo credit: Pixabay

The Guide To Managing Innovative Projects is available as a free download from Richmond Innovation. The full document covers a range of subjects including agile project delivery and approaches, innovation project risk management, people factors in innovation projects, planning and the project manager, innovation portfolio management, and where project management fits into the idea management process.

Topics:Project ManagementInnovation Management