For any breakthrough innovation project, specific objectives are often unclear or highly malleable, and the paths to them are murky. Rather than feign a certainty that doesn’t exist, project managers need a systematic, disciplined framework for turning uncertainty into useful learning that keeps the project tacking on a successful course.
In new-product development, most management approaches presume a high ratio of knowns to unknowns, and most planning defines prescribed pathways through developmental stages and decision gates. In fact, a byproduct of the focus on quality and operational excellence is that companies tend to avoid uncertain situations and resist market experimentation. However, such approaches are counterproductive for any project that has the potential to produce real breakthrough innovations,1 which, by definition, are fraught with a high degree of uncertainty. Indeed, when asked about how they managed breakthrough innovation projects, respondents from a variety of industries expressed difficulty articulating and defining the uncertainties that confronted them and the approaches they could use to attack those uncertainties. (See “About the Research.”) In this article, we offer a framework, called the Learning Plan, that enables companies to manage breakthrough innovation by explicitly recognizing that project teams are proceeding on the basis of assumptions, rather than known facts.