This is not intended to be program management 101, but more of things to consider as you ponder moving forward with your idea. At Air University Innovation Accelerator, we’ve taken on several projects and created prototypes with goals of meeting warfighter needs and supporting the National Security Strategy. We’re fortunate enough to have a great team and wide network of academia, industry and experts to advise and assist through planning a project, but that hasn’t kept issues from arising. As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Punches are certainly going to happen in the process but having a solid team and incorporating the suggestions below should help in making them more glancing blows than knockouts.
Moving an innovative idea to culmination takes careful planning, collaboration, and adaptability. The endgame is a service or product that solves a realistic problem. One of the primary steps is to assemble a distinct team of experts in all facets of your idea, capable of critical thinking and willing to speak their mind to identify and address potential shortcomings. Just as important as assembling the right team is clearly defining your project’s requirements, creating an achievable timeline and setting important milestones. Collaboration with external networks and experts can open doors to invaluable resources and support. Embrace the concept of “failing early” to swiftly get back on track, avoiding costly setbacks. Additionally, resist chasing budding components or falling victim to scope creep. Be prepared to pivot when necessary, and above all, know when your innovative idea is truly ready.
The first question to ask, “is this, well, innovative?” So, this begs the question of what is innovation? Webster defines it as, “A new idea, method or device.” Another way to consider it is using an established product in a manner it was not originally designed in order to solve a problem (think MacGyver).
Is it solving a relative problem? You should be trying to solve a problem that is in your hierarchy. It should be your boss’s problem or your boss’s boss’s problem. If you work in the accounting department and have an amazing idea for reducing personnel workload by developing a new accounts payable technique, it will get much more traction than an idea to speed parts retrieval in the warehouse.
Create your team. One of the most important steps to getting this right is making sure the proper team is together from the beginning. Take a good look at all the requirements your idea incorporates and find individuals with a deep knowledge in each one of those components. Chances are you don’t have the skills or thorough background in all the elements that make up your idea. Explore the system for smart folks who can give solid advice on what can and cannot be accomplished.
Don’t be the smartest one on your team. Avoid the perception of being the all-knowing one on the team. Important elements of a strong team are critical thinking abilities and everyone having an equal standing to express their thoughts. This can be significantly hindered if members defer to your ideas because of your brilliance or expertise. Create an atmosphere where ideas are freely questioned to expose shortcomings. Uncovering issues early in the planning process makes them much easier to overcome. Be aware that team leaders or supervisors of team members can also have a similar effect. Certain members may just sit quietly to avoid appearing foolish in front of their leadership.
List the requirements. What do you need your idea to accomplish? What does the final product look like? What are all the components that need to be present in your final prototype? Brainstorm in whatever manner works best for your team to come up with all the parts and stakeholders that will be necessary for the idea to move forward.
Set an attainable timeline. This is a critical item for the team to construct. Determine the completion date for the idea, to include any testing that may be required. There are numerous driving factors that could establish the completion date ranging from funding expiration, an opportunity to show off the prototype at a function or simply when the boss wants it done. Now establish an end date. The end date should have a buffer from the completion date to accommodate for slippage and allow some flexibility.
Determine your milestones. Milestones are critical events that must take place in order for the project to be completed. The team needs to look at the entire creation process to search for accurate dates. Examples would include contractor selection, component delivery and testing. Add them to the timeline. Watch these timelines closely because if a milestone keeps slipping it could be an indicator of a problem in your planning and you might need to take action.
Explore your network for collaboration. Whether it be another department or another person, odds are your project is going to need some assistance from someone outside of your control. This need, hopefully, was identified by the team on the initial brainstorming session. Reach out early to them and explain their role and ensure they understand your needs and are available to help. If you have doubts about their level of commitment, have a backup plan.
Fail Early. There’s a phrase in college football that if you’re going to lose, lose early. A ranked team can climb their way back into playoff contention if they win out. Conversely if they lose towards the end of the season, it’s difficult to recover. The same holds true for getting the idea to the end. Let’s say the team has decided to use a local company to produce your idea but, as one of the first milestones approaches, you’re unhappy with the company’s performance. If the timeline has been set correctly, you might have enough time to reload and start all over again with a new company (pending contractual obligations). Obviously, this becomes extremely problematic as time moves on.
Don’t chase unicorns. With today’s fast-moving technology, chances are a new version of a component in your project will hit the shelves that’s cooler, faster or a better color than what was originally settled on as a requirement in your prototype. Make a note of the improved components and where they are available. These can be incorporated into future projects or subsequent versions. Remember the goal is a minimum viable product and stay focused.
Be mindful of scope creep. Similar to unicorn chasing is scope creep, which involves introducing new requirements into the project once it has begun. Exercise caution if someone suggests, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the prototype could also…” Scope creep can pose a significant risk, potentially leading to escalating costs and extended timelines. Use an objective perspective when these ideas are mentioned. If the new requirement isn’t essential to the original plan, you might be better served tabling it for consideration in future iterations.
Be agile and ready to pivot. The team put together a plan which looked great in the boardroom, on the slide deck and now is underway. Expect once the project starts moving, life is going to happen, and things might get a little sideways. You need to be ready to adjust and do it quickly. The small issues here and there such as team members changing can cause a little hiccup but can be quickly resolved. However, you need to be prepared to take action if something critical happens. Looking at your milestones can give some insight to where you might need a plan b. For instance, what are you going to do if one of the component manufacturers has supply chain issues two weeks before a delivery date? Can you afford to wait and extend the project? Or did you identify a suitable substitute product that is more readily available during the planning phase?
Know when it’s done. Understanding when a project is truly completed becomes a factor only when it’s a collaborative effort with an eventual handover to another team. The key lies in establishing the point when all project goals have been satisfactorily met and when the product meets its intended purpose. This isn’t solely about reaching the last item on the checklist; it’s about ensuring the product fixes the problem it was created to solve. The decision point for transitioning the project should be a well-defined milestone. Regularly reiterating the turnover process throughout the project with the eventual owners effectively manages expectations and ensures a smooth handover process.
This is by no means a foolproof or all-inclusive outline to moving your idea from concept to product. If it is a major undertaking, it might be best to leave it to the professionals. However, if it is a minor project or something you’re looking to do as an entrepreneur, these are some suggestions that might make your path a little less rocky.