For most people, ambiguity leads to anxiety. Questions about whether a project stakeholder will be satisfied, whether the work can be completed within the expected time, or about whether an idea is technically feasible – all lead to fearful behavior on a project, both from managers as well as individual contributors. The usual response to this anxiety is to work as hard as possible to reduce the ambiguity of a project as quickly as possible. That means establishing detailed plans, specifications, requirements – anything to eliminate ambiguity.

Knowing exactly what work needs to be done by when feels reassuring. It makes it easier to manage expectations and spot problems based on deviations from the plan. But the benefits of certainty come with some costly tradeoffs. As the project progresses and the team learns more, how can you ensure that you don’t miss any opportunities to do more with less, to deliver more effective solutions and delight customers in ways that you never imagined initially?

Leaving room for inspiration is about having the discipline to avoid locking in on your first good idea, even if it seems perfectly acceptable. Focus instead on clearly understanding the purpose of the work, taking time to explore multiple options, test and learn from them, then explore some more.

In theory, you might expect that this approach will take longer than just going with the first thing that works and getting it done. But what usually happens is that what seems certain turns out not to be. Forced adjustments happen later in the project, customers get what they asked for but not what they wanted and on three out of four projects, the schedule slips.

Most companies say they want innovation, but aren’t quite sure what it takes to get it. They worry about the tradeoffs, the costs, the risks and how to manage them.

The good news is that following a few simple principles can increase your odds dramatically of developing breakthrough innovations and usually don’t end up costing any more or taking any longer than more conventional approaches. Here they are, boiled down for simplicity:

  • Start by focusing on the need, not the solution. Be disciplined about it, because it doesn’t come naturally. Make sure everyone understands the need before proposing ideas for how to solve for it.
  • Build time for innovation into the schedule. Postpone the need to define a fixed scope of work, at first by a little, then, as you get more comfortable with the process, by longer.
  • Develop multiple options and test them before committing to a plan.

Inspiration doesn’t come on demand. You can’t force it, but it is possible to create conditions that improve your odds of it visiting your team.