Working In Uncertainty

Success with innovative projects

by Matthew Leitch, first published 15 February 2006.


How innovative?

Projects that involve doing something that has never been done before, as far as you know, and will involve some invention and discovery along the way, present special problems. The more innovative the project the more easily it will shrug off attempts to impose normal project management disciplines. These projects are not to everyone's taste, which is just as well because if all projects in an organization were like this then chaos would soon result. These are not the projects any organization should have in large number, or make large investments in. These are the projects that often go wrong, that often end up somewhere unexpected, that create confusion and stress far beyond their (usually) small size, and yet that an organization needs to do from time to time to avoid falling behind. In short, you need them but volunteers may be in short supply.

I've just described my favourite projects, but I know not everyone shares my tastes. This article looks at the special characteristics of innovative projects and how to make them successful. Just applying normal project management disciplines, but more strictly because these projects seem so hard to control, will do more harm than good.

The ideas in this article are particularly appropriate to projects doing original things in internal control and risk management.

What to expect

Even when well managed, projects with lots of innovation usually involve:

  • High uncertainty: This more than anything else defines the experience of innovative projects. The methods are uncertain. The likely results are uncertain. Attitudes are uncertain. Resources are uncertain. Objectives are uncertain. Yes, even objectives.

  • Shifting, often fuzzy objectives: Objectives are uncertain even when great effort is made to clarify them. The problem is that we don't know what we will invent. It may turn out that we invent something that offers new advantages we did not suspect initially. It may be that, overall, this result is better than we originally hoped for, or worse, or just different. The answer is to think about objectives repeatedly, accepting and clarifying the uncertainties involved, and keep an open mind.

  • Endless problem solving: Time and again our solution to one problem creates new problems elsewhere. Even when we are doing well there are still many shocking discoveries to make, many drawbacks, technical hitches, objections, political barriers, and so on and on. This is characteristic of innovation. An innovation takes time to permeate a society because everyone has to solve at least some problems in order to take advantage of it.

  • Lucky discoveries: If you do these projects well you will find that the luck is not all bad. Keep your approach open to good luck and usually it will come along.

  • Unproductive meetings: Many meetings on these projects seem unproductive but are not. Unfortunately, many others really are a waste of time. The problem is that not everyone understands these projects or how to contribute to them. Wheels spin pointlessly in pseudo-creative brainstorming, idiotic exercises with sticky notes and flip charts, and other substitutes for productive thought.

  • Uneven progress: Will we have the problem half solved when we get half way through the budget? I doubt it. These projects are more like scientific discovery than digging a ditch. You can work for weeks and achieve nothing, then, suddenly, it all comes together (or not).

  • Conceptual resistance: Doing something new often triggers intellectual objections, mainly from people who are experts in the field. Non-experts usually have no difficulty with a new idea, if explained in plain language, because they don't have prior expectations or beliefs. In constrast, experts can completely miss a new idea even when explained very clearly. They think they understand, but actually hear what they expect, not what was said. For example, members of the Beyond Budgeting Round Table have told me that the main resistance to getting rid of budgetary control systems comes from internal auditors and finance people. People with other backgrounds, like sales, logistics, and production, have much less difficulty imagining a happy life without budgets.

  • Lack of consensus: Since people involved in these projects are uncertain about so much it is not surprising that they agree on so little. A good starting point is to agree that things are uncertain and that the work should be done in a way that helps reduce unhelpful uncertainty without killing off opportunities, so that over time more agreement will be reached.

Who will succeed?

Before we look at the techniques and attitudes that promote success in innovative projects, here are some thoughts on the ideal people to include in the team. These projects call for powerful thinkers rather than diligent organisers. If the team doesn't have the right kind of intellectual horsepower to succeed then no amount of resource management is going to make a difference. What should we look for?

The ideal player is:

  • A clear thinker who can tolerate extreme uncertainty: Since innovative projects create extreme uncertainty you have to be able to cope with it, and yet have the clarity to reduce it through insight and good strategies.

  • Highly inventive in the subject matter required: This follows from the need for endless problem solving. Ask the ideal person if they have any ideas and they will have several almost immediately that are good candidates. Quantity of ideas without quality is not sufficient.

  • Multi-skilled: Many innovations cut across disciplines and organizational boundaries. In internal controls projects the ideal player knows controls (obviously), computer programming and IT generally, finance, computer packages, the business, cognitive ergonomics, other relevant psychology, and on top of that is an excellent writer and speaker. Each knowledge gap means the person can be delayed by having to wait for someone else to cooperate. The greatest hazard in my experience is being told something silly by an IT specialist but not having the knowledge or self confidence to realise what has happened. The next best thing to multi-talented individuals is a multi-talented team.

  • Willing to keep trying: One of the most difficult aspects of these projects is the emotional impact of seeing one idea after another crushed by politics or new discoveries. The ideal person will often be the first to realise his/her idea needs to be replaced. This takes considerable drive and self confidence.

  • Driven to make things better: It's no good if people on the project are easily put off by feeble flak like ‘If it's not broken don't fix it’, ‘We don't want to reinvent the wheel’ or the ever popular ‘We know our business.’ The driven innovator knows the objective is to improve, not to fix, that wheel technology has never stopped developing, and that people can always know more about their business than they do now.

  • Able to tolerate being in a minority: Innovators need to be comfortable with having most people thinking one thing while they are thinking another. It is vital to be totally immersed in the work the project is changing, to understand past behaviour and beliefs, and yet to avoid becoming drawn into the existing way of thinking and unable to see beyond it. This is even more difficult when things are uncertain because it is human nature in this situation to look at what others are doing and copy.

  • Brings ideas from a different field: Cross fertilization can be very useful. An industry employing hundreds of thousands, even millions of people can still be insular and unaware of just how narrow its thinking is.

Useful techniques

Here are techniques and tactics that are useful in highly innovative projects:

  • Discuss uncertainties early on, and keep coming back to them: Since uncertainty is so high it helps to get it out in the open, acknowledge it, and let it shape your approach to the project. It is a big mistake to pretend you are less uncertain than you really are, and almost as bad not to make the effort to increase awareness of uncertainties. List them, talk about them, discuss how you hope to learn more over time. In successive iterations of this discussion your analysis may become more organized and scientific.

  • Value experience gained: A common mistake is to think innovation is the same as ‘blue sky thinking’ i.e. an exercise in imagination unfettered by real life constraints. Long, abstract discussions conducted in meeting rooms or ‘off site’ venues inevitably spin round in confusion within this data free zone. It can be helpful to shake off old habits, but a better way of doing this is to look very carefully at reality and let it provide the clues. A superb example was shown on UK television in the series ‘Better by Design’, in which two product designers, Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, were challenged to redesign everyday objects and make them better. Richard and Dick are astonishingly talented and produced some outstanding ideas on this programme, some of which have subsequently been turned into successful products by major companies. So, how do they start their search for improvement? They look closely at what products are like now. When the challenge was to redesign the toilet they looked at toilets, sat on them, went to an exhibition of toilets in Japan, read about toilets, talked to people about their experiences with toilets. In short, they immersed themselves in the current experience of using toilets! While they did so ideas for improvements sparked from them and people they talked to. These were not designs, just ideas, elements, possibilities.

    Another kind of experience that is vital on innovative projects is the learning we get from trying something and looking to see what happens.

  • Early, incremental deliveries: The sooner we deliver some kind of improvement, even if it is small or narrow, the quicker we will learn. Learning by trying something out is more powerful and reliable than learning by theory alone. The principles of ‘skunkworks’, as pioneered at Lockheed Martin when developing spy planes such as the SR71 (Blackbird) and its predecessor the U2, include making something that flies as soon as possible. This is so that the design can be evolved with the benefit of testing experience. Techniques for designing and managing projects with many frequent deliveries of improvements, and where the overall project is evolving, have been set out brilliantly by Tom Gilb in his method ‘Evo’.

  • A benefits delivery pipeline: If you are to deliver beneficial change in increments from an early stage then you need to set things up to allow that to be done efficiently. Internal control and risk management projects often involve designing a process or some reports for people to use. You need some ‘users’ who are interested enough to try out your new inventions, give feedback, and perhaps become sales people for your ideas. Typically these users won't know in advance what they will like and find useful. They may have some ideas about that but not necessarily any better than yours. Your approach will be to get them to try things and react naturally, not as critics but as the users they are.

  • Measure results: A key element of Evo is measurement of improvements. This is usually done in very simple, practical ways, and rarely turned into Net Present Value terms. How long does it take to enter a sale? How many mistakes do people make per hundred deliveries? Simple measures such as this are good enough for most purposes.

  • Do not commit large resources: If you conduct the project as a series of small deliveries that are valuable to stakeholders then the commitment of resources at each delivery will be small. It is usually a mistake to let people spend a lot of time and money without delivering something.

  • Repeatedly re-think the benefits: Benefits evolve. In innovative projects this happens even if you don't try, but it is less painful if you know what to expect. Also, if you understand benefits evolution and repeatedly discuss the latest thinking on possible benefits throughout your project you are more likely to notice new, emerging benefits. Holding yourself rigidly accountable to the benefits dreamt of at the start is not helpful. Of course there is the danger of being tricked by imaginative and shifting benefit stories into supporting a project that ultimately achieves nothing useful. If you are seeing frequent deliveries of measured improvements then there is little danger of this.

  • Project the future with ranges, not best guesses: To keep uncertainty explicit and set realistic expectations, state views about future benefits and costs using ranges, perhaps even probabilistic ranges.

  • Try multiple experiments in parallel: When you are not sure what will work it makes sense to try things and see. The fastest way to do this is often to try several ideas in parallel. Another idea along these lines is to run separate project teams with low budgets rather than put all your resources in one team that may get stuck down an unproductive avenue. Two separate projects each costing 100,000, with the same brief, may well produce a better result than a single project costing 500,000.

  • Breadth first: Problem solving and design are a form of search. We are searching a very large ‘problem space’ and that size is the big problem. If you are lucky enough to look in a good place early on then success follows quickly. If you don't get lucky you may never find a satisfactory design. Obviously we would like to improve our odds and the way to do that is to sift through a lot of information related to the topic looking for deductions that will constrain the solution and so narrow the search. For example, you may realise early on that only a solution that is acceptable to a particular person will be accepted, or that it has to cost no more than a certain figure, or that the colour should be a warm colour, or that the solution will probably have to be on a cycle more frequent than annual to stand a chance. These little deductions soon build up to a useful basis for searching efficiently. Often you can search for a long time then find something that constrains the solution so tightly that the decision on what to do is made immediately.

How to sabotage innovative projects

If your ambition is to make sure an innovative project is a failure then here is what you should do. The following techniques are so easy that even people who want successful projects occasionally do them, not realising the damage they do:

First, insist on consensus as to exactly what the project will deliver, when, and with what resources. Do not under any circumstances accept any uncertainty in this and do not allow any work to proceed until firm commitment and unanimous agreement have been achieved. Once you have agreement make it as hard as possible to change anything and frown on opportunism. In the unlikely event that this fails to kill the project develop a formal project plan with large phases of work that make sure nothing is actually delivered until the very end. Set out the project with logical sounding headings like ‘analysis’ and ‘solutions development’. Anything will do as long as it doesn't involve trying something out in practice.

If, like a hardy weed that survives weed-killer, the project struggles on then your problem might be that someone in the team is a strong innovator. If that is the case you must do everything you can to drive them away or prevent them from contributing. Clearly it is time to set up some brainstorming meetings. Flipcharts, sticky notes, breaking into groups, feeding back ‘conclusions’ – you know the kind of thing. Make sure nobody has time to think their ideas through properly and that anybody who does have well thought through proposals sees them put onto the flip chart along with the dross, mixed and mangled into useless oblivion. People with few good ideas will sit through this, go through the motions, and wait for an easier session. People with lots of good ideas will be demoralised and frustrated.

If, despite all your precautions, someone actually does come up with a promising idea do not worry. They are playing into your hands. Simply welcome the idea, praise it, and focus all resources and thinking on it and it alone. Sooner or later the idea will hit problems and when it does that narrow focus will mean it is stuck. Tackling the problem from several directions at once, or searching for even easier ways in, would give a much better chance of success so make sure people don't get up to those tricks.

The key to effective sabotage is to present what you are doing as sensible, good management. Make it sound ‘logical.’ Stay calm, take notes, say supportive things, and you can be sure of getting away with it.


Looking back at the many innovative projects I've been in over the last twenty years only a handful have been managed appropriately to succeed. That hasn't stopped them being useful, but so often it could all have been much easier, quicker, and cheaper. The tactics described above can all contribute to the success of your innovative projects.

Words © 2006 Matthew Leitch. First published 15 February 2006.