The Ventures Approach
Part 1: The Innovation Space

By Brian C. Dougherty, Director of Engineering

Imagine engineering projects along a continuum, with straight-forward, traditional projects, such as building a new stretch of interstate highway, at one end and highly innovative projects, such as designing a radically new operating system, at the other. All projects present challenges, but those challenges change as you move from one end of the continuum to the other.

At Rose-Hulman Ventures, we specialize in the innovation end of the spectrum, in what we call the “innovation space.” These projects tend to be very loosely defined and involve significant levels of discovery. They also tend to produce a lot of surprises along the way. Managing these projects really means managing the discovery process.

In traditional engineering projects, the project management procedures are essentially a roadmap to a successful and predictable outcome. Procedures exist to keep project managers from getting overwhelmed by the logistical details. In a sense, they are the equation you can “plug and chug” your way through to get a good result.

In the innovation space, where you are doing something that’s never been done before, discovery will dominate your effort. In effect, the innovation piece of the project becomes the critical path and, in my experience, the logistics can simply be dealt with ad-hoc, if the project manager is reasonably skilled.

In short, in the innovation space, the training wheels are off. The security found by following a process is gone, and you are left alone to see if you can actually handle the strain. Simple assumptions made for traditional project management equations have fallen apart, and you are left trying to derive new equations from scratch. You have to be good at what you do. In the innovation space, policy and procedure can never replace talent and skill.

So, how do you survive your battles? Are you good enough for the innovation space? If you have bothered to read this far, then I’d say your chances are good.

In Parts II and III of this series, we’ll look at how to handle traditional project management challenges, such as scope creep, risk management, quality control, scheduling, and budgeting, in the innovative project setting.