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  • Writer's pictureDr. Babette Sonntag

A world of its own? Innovation projects vs. classic projects

Opposite colored pencils that complement each other
Innovation projects - and classic projects - similar and yet different

Can innovation projects be managed with classic project management?

If so, all you have to do is copy the company's standard project management process and apply it to the innovation projects.

My question already suggests that I don't think it's that easy.

Special characteristic of innovation projects

Mostly, the above process refers to classic projects where the delivery item, the deliverable, and the procedure can be clearly defined. Innovation projects have the special characteristic that at the beginning you cannot be sure whether the planned product will actually come out with the assumed specifications. In fact, it's often the opposite: on average, only 1 out of 10 innovative ideas reaches market maturity. And this one idea has very likely changed along the innovation process. Change and transformation of the project object, the deliverable, are important characteristics of innovation projects.


It's a long way from the initial idea to market maturity. Along this path, it is fundamentally important to constantly obtain, evaluate and consider feedback from potential users and customers. Since this is a new product or service, there is a lack of many empirical information.

Here's a good overview of the importance of customer feedback: Customer Feedback Strategy: The Only Guide You'll Ever Need (

This feedback and the methods we use to manage it efficiently and purposefully are the crown jewels of our innovation. It's very likely that innovation teams will have to completely change designs or technical specifications because users point out things that were overlooked or seen differently. Customer feedback is king!

Since these feedback loops take place constantly, the tasks in the project change again and again. This changes the work packages, the cost or time plans. The skills that are required in the project may also change, and with them the resource planning.

Two different worlds?

In classic projects it is expected that a reliable project plan from start to final handover is prepared so that the project can be started. This means that scope, costs and time are planned from day 1 to the end of the project and the handover of the agreed deliverable to the client. They are the basis for the "go". Of course, there are often reasons for changes, but these are to be treated like an escalation. The entire plan then needs to be adjusted.

That doesn't go well with innovation projects, where changes are almost a part of it. The work here is more sequential. Based on agile management, we only plan in detail for innovation projects for the near future. The further away in the future, the more imprecise the project plan.

Working with hypotheses (assumptions to be proven instead of specifications to be delivered), feedback and adjustment loops in everyday life and internal flexible, fast decision-making entities help.

Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity not a threat.

Steve Jobs

It often happens with innovation projects that they are stopped along the way (see above - only 1 in 10 ideas reach market maturity). Reasons are, for example, that no pilot customers could be found, that the business case does not pay off or that the technology is not yet mature enough. This option must be considered for every innovation project. In classic projects, that would cause a huge problem. Imagine the rollout of a collaboration platform in the big company is stopped halfway, although all information about the product and environment as well as a complete plan were approved frome the start.

What do innovation projects need?

Innovation projects therefore need sequential planning, a very agile way of working, the stop option, constant evaluation of feasibility and potential market success and flexibility when changing the deliverable.

Methods of classic management or purely agile management* alone do not meet the requirements of a project "from idea to innovation".

Futhermore innovation projects need

  • People who can deal with uncertainty and the wind of change

  • People who master methods to elicit ideas and valuable feedback from others

  • a free environment to work non-conformally without process barriers

  • the courage to learn from mistakes instead of seeing them as failures

  • the knowledge of working with hypotheses

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.

Theodore Lewitt

What do you think?

*Of course, these project management types have their full justification and should be used with suitable project content and scopes.

If you want to know more about the differences and possible uses of classic and agile project management, then I recommend this article: Classical Project Management vs Agile Project Management (

Here you can also briefly learn about the special features of the two types of project management: What Is Agile Project Management? | APM Methodology & Definition

Please note: This text is translated into English by using Google Translate - I apologize for any mistakes in this text I may have overlooked.


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