financial crisis,  innovation

Projects, innovation & the small price of a coffee

Coffee Love (FI-20473)

<Image coffee love>

Stephen Downes pointed at this piece from Tony Bates arguing that the choice facing higher education institutions is often phrased as one of 'innovate or die'.  It prompted me to blog some half baked thoughts I'd had around innovation recently.

In my presentation on Academic output as collateral damage I suggested that organisations like projects. They are set up to work with project structures, which have lines of responsibility, a set of deliverables, milestones, and fixed budgets. I understand this and for a lot of tasks it is the best way to work. But here are three statements I would like to put forward:

1) The small scale, web 2 type innovation we need to see doesn't fit well into conventional project structures.

2) As money becomes tighter in higher education, there will be a strong push to control resources more, with everything and everyone allocated to a specific, accountable project.

3) The organisations that do best in the financial crisis will be those that can manage small scale innovation, and transform this into a varied offering, so that at low cost they can meet a wide range of needs.

You'll see the dilemma here – in economically straitened times, the instinct is to control everything tightly through a project structure, but this project structure is not well suited to the type of innovation you need to engage in to perform well. The institutional instincts may be contrary to the overall well being of the institution as a whole, rather like a wounded animal fighting off a vet.

A very, very, small example of this happened last week – I wanted to try a video experiment with a few people at the OU. I asked if we could provide them with coffee and biscuits to entice them along and help with the ambience and was told no, unless it was related to a specific project. In fairness I think I could have got the coffee money if I'd tried a different route (and we didn't go ahead with the experiment anyway). But it's the type of example we've all come across probably. My point here is that this might be exactly the sort of innovation you want to encourage, or maybe it's providing pizza for a bunch of developers (what cliche?), or getting someone's time for a couple of days. All of these types of informal projects become increasingly difficult in a project-centric approach.

The solution is probably to set up a non-project project, or something like Google's 10% time when people are free to explore other approaches, but these are by their very nature, unpredictable and uncertain. And in times of financial crisis unpredictability and uncertainty are not favourable characteristics for a proposal. We know, however, that these are precisely the qualities that lead to exciting developments online. So, how to square that circle?


  • James Clay

    When I talk about Innovation Prevention Departments (a phrase that originates from Jon Trinder) people often assume I am talking about IT services.
    However as you discuss above, IPDs can be ANY department. When protocols, procedures and processes get in the way of experimentation, innovation and even discussion; how on earth is anyone expected to innovate?

  • Fredgarnett

    Google have made it a point of principle of having free food, drinks (and a masseuse!) to encourage collaboration and discussion, as well as the 20% rule.
    I used to organise Networking Lunches (from a project budget of course) to get key thinkers in to talk to my team about new cutting edge ideas at Becta, before the Project Managers moved in.
    Eat, Drink and Collaborate I think
    How about a brain-storming innovation equivalent of the Writers Room that TV uses to write comedy, soaps, etc?

  • Chrisrjones

    You began this piece with a reference to the blog post by Tony Bates – Innovate or Die. The problem I had with this was that Bates does not endorse the idea of Innovate or Die he points to this rhetoric being promoted in a variety of places. He concludes with this
    “So some questions, dear readers:
    1. Do our (public) institutions really need to change, or is this just the usual North American hype and hyperbole?
    2. If they do need to change, are they up to it? Do they have the will, skills, knowledge and attitude to make the changes necessary?
    3. Is e-learning an essential component of any needed changes, or could the institutions manage the necessary changes without a heavy reliance on e-learning?
    4. What is needed to bring about any necessary changes in our institutions?”
    These are interesting questions and in the UK we are definitely engaged in hype and hyperbole of a very pervasive kind. Huge cuts are being announced but many don’t bite until 2012. They are government choices but they are announced now as being innevitable necessities forced on the new government by the policies of the outgoing administration.
    My conclusion – be careful what is being touted as innovation. Much of it is recycled crap from many years ago fuelled by neo-liberal economic ideas that failed spectacularly in the financial crash. See for example Tapscott and Williams (2010) and Bates’ reply
    The scale of the financial crisis moves innovation away from the small scale. I agree with Martin that project accountability will not work but I don’t believe small scale innovation will either.
    I think we are returning from a time of consensus to a time of political polarisation. The cuts and the logic behind them have to be challenged by a root and branch ideological approach. Those who wish to make the cuts are informed by neo-liberal free market and right-wing liberatarian ideas. Those on the left in favour of public service values and openness will need a solid foundation and some big ideas in the next few years. Tony Bates’ questions are a starting point at least.

  • Martin

    @James – I love the phrase IPD
    @Fred – I am definitely putting masseuse on my next funding proposal 🙂
    @Chris – maybe you’re right, there is the bigger financial crisis and that may well require a coming together rather than small scale innovation. I agree that it is death of a 1000 cuts, we all accept a bit and should make a more considered stand. That aside though I think small scale innovation is a good way to do stuff with lots of the social media – you have free tools, open apis, easy to create content, etc so a lot can be done with a small amount of resource which wasn’t the case before, but this tends to fall between the gaps. For instance, with sociallearn the OU couldn’t help itself turning it into a big project where it probably needed to remain lighter. I have combined the financial crisis and the social media type innovation here because it may be that when all this has passed we’ll be looking around and seeing which organisations managed to keep up and those that fell behind. But maybe I should keep them distinct.

  • Owen Stephens

    Hi Martin,
    I’m just in the process of writing up the final report for the TELSTAR project ( This was funded under the JISC ‘institutional innovation’ programme.
    In this context Institutional Innovation is not just about being innovative, but improving institutional processes etc in a sustainable way, through innovation.
    Although we had a formal project structure, the management was relatively lightweight. However, I do think (in this case) that to be ‘successful’ (and of course we can argue about measures of success!) it was essential that the ‘innovation’ was well integrated into the OU infrastructure.
    I guess this is a balancing act. Maybe we weren’t as innovative as we would have been if we had been completely free of institutional constraints – but on the otherhand, we have delivered something that the institution is committed to, and able to, support, while still being innovative.
    All that said, I want to be clear, for the record, that there is no doubt in my mind that coffee and cake are essential elements of innovation 🙂

  • D'Arcy Norman

    I just added a new unproject-project to our department’s timesheet system. I’d been using a couple of other projects as catch-alls, but this one will be specifically for tracking/justifying stuff that needs to get done, but can’t be done through traditional Projects. I’ll either ruffle some feathers, or go completely unnoticed…

  • Martin

    Thanks for letting me know D’Arcy and will be interesting to hear how it goes. So you don’t have any budget attached to it, but can allocate time against unprojects, is that right?

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