Why is the way we work with ideation so different than the way we normally execute projects? This article argues that the two ways of working can be combined into an ‘innovation project machine’ that more effectively captures new ideas and executes innovation, inspired by agile project management and with learning for managers.

We talk a lot about the need for speeding up innovation and have plenty of models, processes and tools for innovation. Why do many organizations still face challenges in doing innovation in practice?

A major impediment for successful innovation is a poor working ideation phase – often rooted in ideation being a ‘young’ discipline. Often, ideation is neither properly integrated into the organization’s behavior as are other business processes, nor broadly accepted among managers. In other cases, innovative ideas are in fact captured in the ideation phase, but perish when they are fed into the ‘The project machine’ as they don’t fit the way we do projects.

We are far more experienced in managing and executing projects in established business areas than we are in ideation. We are so because we have what I call ‘The project machine’ – an efficient institution with procedures, habits and skills to reach milestones and achieve results over a defined period of time by setting goals, organizing teams, motivating people, collaborating and executing.

Too many managers and people think of ideation as the funny part, having a day off, perhaps followed by a meeting or two.

Ideation lives a life of its own, it is not integrated into the project machine, and typically misses real engagement and execution beyond the first, nebulous concepts. The outcome are lots of promising ideas that become trapped due to vagueness and lack of appropriate execution models, and a lack of people to accept the challenge and run this marathon with a high risk of failure. Furthermore, ideation is not accepted and prioritized as are projects in other fields. Too many managers and people think of ideation as the funny part, having a day off, perhaps followed by a meeting or two.

That is why we need ‘innovation champions’. But think about it – why is it so? Do we need project champions? Yes we do, project managers are essential and highly appreciated and valuable to an organization. But we are not in deficit of project managers to the same extent as we are with innovation champions. In fact, we have more dedicated project managers than ever. We educate lots of them. Project management is an established business skill with well-defined tools, standards and certifications (see for example the Project Management Institute,

In ideation, project progress is extremely dependent upon the dedication and time of a few people. In many organizations it’s even expected that these professionals – on top of their normal work – mature fragile ideas into innovative concepts. Thus, idea management skills, tools and methods are not as advanced as in project management.

The project machine is not good at innovating. Projects might be efficiently executed, but often with none or minor thinking of doing things very differently in the race for accomplishing milestones and reaching deadlines. Project execution is, in essence, about getting a defined quality in time, create prediction and reducing risk. Thus, outcomes are not changing the game – and are not expected to be in most cases.

When it comes to innovation projects there is a clash. Many ideas have loose ends when they are fed into the project  machine, for example the first or second stage in the Stage-Gate process. Innovative, game-changing ideas typically need further maturing with other means than is normally used in the project machine. Innovative ideas are hard to evaluate by standard criteria such as ‘fit to strategy’ or ‘time-to-market’. Such an idea is often outside the strategy (thus creating a repulsive organization) and we might have only fragile knowledge of when it might be ready for the market. But it can be an idea that really makes the change of the game.

It’s often hard to measure, directly, the return on investment (ROI) of ideation. New inputs, changes and different people involved will alter the original idea through the innovation funnel and the stage-gate process. So how was the original idea captured? How valuable was the ideation process compared to the following innovation process and investments in development, marketing, etc.? Would we by coincidence have found the idea anyway, without a systematic ideation process? Tricky questions to answer, but necessary if we should continue to invest in ideation.

A typical fault when moving from ideation to innovation project is that we try to measure innovative ideas with ROI-tools already when defining the project.

In the project machine, measuring ROI is an inherent part of doing a project and evaluating the success of it. It’s a part of the toolbox and is closely related to outcome and milestones. A typical fault when moving from ideation to innovation project is that we try to measure innovative ideas with ROI-tools already when defining the project. At this stage, ideas are often not ready for using tools that are suited for well-defined projects in well-defined markets.

Hence, we have two separated ways of working creating inadequate outcomes, though each way of working has its own strengths in terms of creation and execution.

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Key questions: Can we somehow combine or integrate the way we work with ideation and project management to build a strong innovation project machine?

Towards an efficient innovation project machine

First of all, we need to improve the idea management phase itself. One of the most promising ways of working systematically with ideation is to make it challenge-driven, i.e. by carefully scoping a challenge and engage people in a specific ideation project to solve the challenge in a limited period of time. Challenge-driven ideation can, under the right circumstances, create promising results that are operational, so it’s possible to take action, as soon as the campaign is over.

Management has the opportunity of scoping a specific strategic, technical, or commercial challenge; for example new products, product improvements, processes, new working methods, new initiatives in sales and marketing etc. using the power of the organization across silos and disciplines. Challenge-driven ideation has the opportunity to involve and ‘energize’ a more diversified group of users in a short, intense process of solving a specific problem.

Broad involvement improves the odds of finding game-changing ideas and has the advantage of creating a wide stakeholder ownership early in the process necessary for subsequent implementation.

To our experience a number of issues are essential to get, also challenge-driven, ideation to work properly. Among the most important and broadly recognized ones are:

  • Have top management focus on the importance of ideation
  • Ensure ‘problem-owners’ and sponsors commitment in the specific ideation sessions
  • Get the scope right from the beginning – unclear scope gives vague results
  • Formulate the right criteria and rules for assessing the value of innovative ideas
  • Motivate users to continuously participate in ideation sessions – online and offline
  • Early involvement of the right stakeholders
  • Identify users for ideation in the organization beyond the usual suspects

However, to fully capture the potential of ideation we need to put our project execution skill in ‘ideation mode’.

Experience from Agile Project Management (APM) is interesting and might be adapted to a form a new way of working with project management in innovation from end2end. APM developed in larger software projects as a response to the failure of the traditional project management model coping with unclear customer needs and fast changing markets. Instead of fixed goals and milestones, central points for APM became people, cross-disciplinary teams, flexibility and continuous deliverables to ensure customer satisfaction.

Jim Highsmith (2004) took APM to product development and developed a methodology around APM. What is interesting is ‘the ability to balance flexibility and stability’ – freely speaking, ‘we don’t know where we are going, but that does not mean we cannot work systematically with project management’.

APM as a project management method offers a set of values, principles and practices to help teams to develop new things in a challenging environment. APM is focused on building projects around motivated individuals and promoting self-organizing teams as well as ensuring daily project cooperation between business people and developers¹.

It makes sense to build a new innovation process integrating the best practices of ideation and project management, as illustrated below:

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Learning for managers

How can you as a manager integrate ideation with project management? I see three types of

Organizational acceptance

  • Make it simple and accepted to choose ideation and ensure confidence in process and tools. Tell the good stories. Make efforts to create broad collaboration across silos.
  • Make participation in ideation career promoting. Integrate ideation in employment contracts and yearly development conversations. Motivate people to engage in the ideation process by social incentives. Accept ideation as equal important work as other projects and daily operations.

Project management

  • Use the ‘Project Management’ approach to drive innovation teams due to its high organizational acceptance, though redefine the project process to include ideation
  • Re-skill project managers with ideation management competencies. Skills should include ability to do visionary thinking, engage teams, empowering people, collaborative management and break uncertainties down to partial tasks that can be handled and thus clarify potential and risk. Also tools and methods related to ethnographic studies, brainstorming, virtual collaborative ideation, rapid prototyping, visual design, service design and co-creation should be parts of the new project management toolbox.

Decision-making process

  • Avoid parallel forums for decision-making, use existing ones, such as Stage-Gate
  • Revise/adapt criteria to include early stage ideas
  • Integrate portfolio management of both the ideation pipeline AND established projects. This includes a measurement system that allow for comparisons between the two categories. When evaluating ideas and concepts in the ideation phase you need to set the right measures and criteria’s
  • If the pipeline sucks, you may need not to start so many projects or even shut down existing projects to allow resources to flow into ideation in order to re-build the pipeline. Kill projects when necessary.

By Tomas Vedsmand

About the author

Tomas Vedsmand is an innovation professional with more than 15 years of experience with innovation, business processes and strategy. He has worked on structuring innovation processes as well as managing innovation in numerous consultancies, start-ups and corporations. His focus in recent years has been on how to capture input from users and lead-users as well as getting value from idea management software platforms. Tomas has experience in sectors such as food, retail, construction, clean-tech and the service sector. He has a PhD in food innovation and is currently a partner in GEMBA Innovation and 8ideas.


1. The Agile Manifesto principles: (