Sanik water grove outside of Bovec Slovenia
Waterfall project management has its place. It is useful for projects where you pretty much know what you need to do.
Think about building a bridge and even developing a new medicine after you have the proof of concept.
When you are dealing with complex and ambitious projects, the end to start dependencies of the go to planning tool of waterfall project management, the Gantt chart, almost immediately becomes useless when you start the project.
Not all innovation projects are the same
There is some confusion that occurs because it is easy to assume that all innovation projects are the same. It is also important to realise that 'complexity' does not mean 'high risk' or even 'difficult'. You can have a high risk and difficult project that is not complex.
The most straightforward innovation projects focus on processes. For those, you pretty much know what you need to do, and you are sure about the outcome.
The next level is the project where you know what you need to do, but are uncertain about the result. The best example I can think for this type of project is a clinical trial. There are well established plans for how to conduct a clinical trial, but you don't know the outcome.
The most complex type of innovation project is one where you do not know how you are going to do it, and you do not know what the outcome will be. These are the ambitious paradigm-shifting projects, which happen to be the projects most likely to make a real difference. They are also the type of projects that consortia are best suited for.
Learning to live without the false comfort of a Gantt chart
Even at the start of complex projects, people get nervous and start asking for Gantt charts. Gantt charts are attempts to overcome the fear of uncertainty that accompanies complex and most ambitious projects.
It is much better to learn to live with that uncertainty and be confident in the ability of a highly interactive group to achieve a goal in an iterative working manner.
Living with uncertainty does not mean you do not plan. To the contrary, you need to plan more often. It is a lesson learned in software development.
Agile project management
It was very common for complex software development projects to fail. This lead to the development of agile project management.
In simple terms the concept of agile is to work in iterative cycles where teams complete a set of deliveries and then come back together to show progress, solve problems, and decide what to work on next. Emphasis is on making progress, not on artificial end to start dependencies and wishful thinking.
If you are going to build a bridge or manage a clinical trial, make that Gantt chart. It will build up your confidence.
For the more complex projects, throw away the Gantt chart.
You should build your confidence by focusing on the process of achieving a high degree of interaction of a diverse group of disciplines and stakeholder while working in iterative cycles.
Trust in the power of a highly interactive diverse group to solve challenging problems and to develop new ideas.
Go ahead. Throw away that Gantt chart.