Status Report

Wayne Hale’s Blog: Project Management and Innovation

By SpaceRef Editor
March 10, 2009
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NASA puts on an outstanding training event every year for aspiring Project Managers. About 1200 folks, both teachers and students, rendezvoused last week near the Kennedy Space Center for an intense two days of classes and panels on how to be a successful project manager.

The fundamentals of project management were firmly reinforced: have a good plan, stick to requirements, control costs, provide schedule margin in high risk areas, etc.

It got me to thinking about how Project Management 101 could be seen as a barrier to innovation.

When building something that has never been built before, innovation is critically important. Innovation at all stages of a project is vital for the end product to be cost effective and carry out its intended function. But what kind of innovation, and when, and how much? There is the rub.

In the barriers to innovation video that I referenced in an earlier blog post, one of the “evil supervisor” stops to innovative ideas was flatly state: “there is no requirement for this”. Anybody who has been to project management 101 knows that requirements creep has killed many a worthy project.

Having a better idea, adding just one more function, tweaking the design through just one more iteration — all these things are wonderful, marvelous, the very lifebreath of a successful project — right up until the point where they kill the project by driving it way over budget, way behind schedule, or into an endless technology development cycle.

Need a down to earth example? Ok, but don’t spread this one around or it will get me in real trouble! My wife came to me several months ago with the requirement to replace the carpet in our dining room. Well, the stuff is 20 years old and looks pretty ratty. So I agreed; we decided on a budget, went shopping at the carpet store. Our project was to replace the carpet, within a budget, certainly within a schedule (before next Thanksgiving!).

Then a new requirement popped out: before changing the carpet the walls should be painted. Certainly makes sense; fresh paint was needed. Nobody in their right mind replaces carpet first and paints later. But adding this new requirement meant that the schedule stretched out and the budget increased! But there is more! It only makes sense to replace the drapes, too. One shouldn’t put old, dusty drapes back up when the paint is fresh and the carpet is new! So another new requirement has been added, costs go up, schedule gets stretched out . . . and in the meantime the carpet we liked got discontinued by the factory. Now, new carpet must be picked, at a higher price . . . .

Congress passed an act a number of years ago which decreed that a project more than a certain percentage over budget or behind schedule should be cancelled. That is where we are with the dining room. Got to descope the requirements and try again.

But on the other hand, without appropriate innovation and upgrades, projects may succeed in building something less than what we could. Something that costs too much to operate, for example, or fails to have an important feature that wasn’t included because of an oversight.

Summarily dismissing any new idea because “there is no requirement for this” is clearly wrong. Nobody gets the requirements perfectly right the first time, no matter how hard you try.

So, the art of project management includes listening to proposed innovators and thoroughly evaluating their ideas. Unfortunately a lot of good ideas get left in the trash. Not because they were not good ideas, but because at some point, somebody has to draw the line and say this much is good enough; we can’t afford any more.

That is a conversation that is hard to have. But it is important.


Akin’s laws of spacecraft design:

#4. Your best design efforts will inevitably wind up being useless in the final design. Learn to live with the disappointment.

#13. Design is based on requirements. There’s no justification for designing something one bit “better” than the requirements dictate.

Yep, I think Dr. Akin is pretty smart.

SpaceRef staff editor.