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How to build a project plan for an ambiguous innovation challenge

If you aren’t sure how to structure your next innovation project, use these steps to gain forward momentum.

How to build a project plan for an ambiguous innovation challenge
[Image source: takasu/ Adobe Stock]

If you’re in a leadership role, your team will often look to you for guidance on how to move forward when the right answers aren’t obvious. But judging from 20 years of experience working with Fortune 500 business leaders on strategy and innovation projects, most leaders I know dread ambiguity.


Innovation projects in particular present some of the most ambiguous situations. After all, innovation is about creating something new. And if something is new, there’s less of a chance that a predecessor has plotted out a clear example of how to tackle the challenge.

Working in innovation, I found that one method in particular greatly helped cut through ambiguity, lay out a clear project plan, and align stakeholders to the objectives and plan required to make it happen. This method involves five key steps to help you lay out the project plan that your team needs:


Just like plotting a course on a map, the first thing you must know is your starting point. More specifically, you need to understand the business context and specific challenge (or opportunity) the business seeks to solve through innovation. Without this, your project plan could steer the team astray and render everyone’s hard work useless to the business.


A simple yet effective way to get everyone on the same page is to review any work done to date, interview the key stakeholders to get their input, and craft a sharp innovation project brief. The brief should articulate the specific business reason the project exists (business problem or opportunity), acknowledge relevant previous work, define what success looks like (clear deliverables/outcomes), and note any scope guidelines or boundaries.


In order to bring key collaborators along on your journey, I recommend you begin step two as a small-group brainstorm (or you can solicit questions via survey/email). Given the specific brief from step one, the team should now create a list of the key questions that remain unanswered. Questions from this list will serve as the basis for creating the actual plan in the next step.

Here are just a few eamples of the kinds of questions you might come up with:

  • What is the current brand equity from which the brand could expand?
  • What are the category options based on this equity?
  • Which category presents the most attractive and feasible financial opportunity?
  • What are the most pressing under-met consumer problems/desires that we could solve?
  • What new product ideas could deliver on these needs?

Essentially, you are breaking the bigger ambiguous challenge into manageable pieces, many of which you may already know how to answer.


Now that you have a clear sense of the questions that the team must answer, you should combine your expertise with that of others on your team to determine an effective way to answer each question. A question may be answered through a specific research method, analysis activity, etc. You may find it helpful to capture if a budget is required in order to complete the step.

Here is an example of how a single question might be broken down:

  • Question: What are the most pressing under-met consumer problems/desires that we could solve for?
  • Method/Activity: In-home ethnographic/observational research study
  • Deliverable: Research report, photo/video excerpts, under-met tensions identified
  • Budget: $25,000-$30,000

It’s useful to create a table that includes each key question, the method or activity to answer it, and the deliverable at each step.


In an ideal world, you’d have plenty of time and money to thoroughly answer each and every possible question, providing 100% confidence in the answer you find and maximizing your likelihood of success. But in the real world, you don’t always have the luxury of unlimited resources.

Larger companies with deep pockets and high expectations tend to run more project steps in order to reduce risk. Often the thinking is that you don’t want to harm an established brand reputation or disappoint shareholders. However, smaller companies tend to reduce steps, with smaller budgets and a higher tolerance for risk—they don’t have as much existing brand reputation to risk and/or don’t have to answer to public shareholders.


After weighing the tradeoffs of answering each question, you might adjust your plan to eliminate certain steps or find ways to complete each step and answer some questions more efficiently.


The final step is to share the plan back with key stakeholders, particularly senior-level stakeholders whose buy-in is needed to move forward. If you’ve done your work to this point in a collaborative fashioninvolving the core team in the thinking and interviewing senior stakeholders upfrontthis step should be more of an update than a surprise.

It’s at this point you should combine the original project brief and the project plan you created into a single document—a project charter that can be officially approved for the team to pursue. This document now sets specific expectations for what business problem the team will solve, who will be involved, and how the process will work. It’s also important to acknowledge any tradeoffs made so senior leaders understand where there is risk.


During these share-outs, you should explain the deliverables and ask stakeholders if there is anything missing they feel is mission-critical. Discuss further any remaining tradeoffs if leadership still wants to move faster or cheaper.


Combining the five steps gives you a clear path to go from no project definition to a clear plan and team alignment. By following this approach, no challenge is too ambiguous to solve. Not only will you have a plan, but you will excite stakeholders and provide confidence in the path forward.

Kevin Namaky, CEO at Gurulocity Brand Management Institute, training for Fortune 500 brands, lecturer at IU-Kelley, instructor for the AMA.