Project plan

How to Build a Project Plan for an Ambiguous Innovation Challenge

If you’re in a leadership position, 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 chance that a predecessor has charted a clear example of how to meet the challenge.

Working in innovation, I found that one method in particular greatly helped overcome ambiguity, establish a clear project plan, and align stakeholders on the goals and plan required to get there. This method includes five key steps to help you establish the project plan your team needs:


Much like plotting a course on a map, the first thing you need to know is your starting point. Specifically, you need to understand the business context and the specific challenge (or opportunity) the company is seeking to solve through innovation. Without it, your project plan could lead the team astray and make everyone’s hard work useless to the business.

A simple but effective way to get everyone on the same page is to review all the work done to date, interview key stakeholders for feedback, and write a sharp innovation project summary. The brief should articulate the specific business reason the project exists (business problem or opportunity), acknowledge relevant past work, define what success looks like (clear deliverables/results), and note any scope guidelines or limitations.


In order to bring key collaborators into your journey, I recommend starting the second stage as a small group brainstorm (or you can solicit questions via survey/email). Given the specific stage one briefing, the team must now create a list of key questions that remain unanswered. The questions in this list will serve as the basis for creating the actual plan in the next step.

Here are some examples of the types of questions you might ask:

  • What is the current brand equity from which the brand could grow?
  • What are the class options based on this equity?
  • Which category presents the most attractive and achievable financial opportunity?
  • What are the most pressing and under-satisfied consumer issues/wants that we could solve?
  • What new product ideas could meet these needs?

Essentially, you break down the biggest ambiguous challenge into manageable pieces, many of which may already know how to respond.


Now that you have a clear idea of ​​the questions the team needs to answer, you need to combine your expertise with that of other members of your team to determine an effective way to answer each question. A question can be answered by a specific research method, analysis activity, etc. You might find it useful to enter if a budget is needed to complete the step.

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

  • Question: What are the most pressing consumer issues/wants that we could solve?
  • Method/Activity: In-home ethnographic/observational research study
  • Deliverable: Research report, photo/video extracts, unsatisfied tensions identified
  • Budget: $25,000 to $30,000

It is helpful 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 would have plenty of time and money to thoroughly answer every possible question, providing 100% confidence in the answer you will find and maximizing your chances of success. But in the real world, you don’t always have the luxury of unlimited resources.

Large companies with deep pockets and high expectations tend to execute more project stages in order to reduce risk. Often the idea is that you don’t want to damage the reputation of an established brand or disappoint shareholders. However, smaller companies tend to cut back on steps, with smaller budgets and higher risk tolerance – 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 can adjust your plan to eliminate certain steps or find ways to complete each step and answer certain questions more efficiently.


The final step is to share the plan with key stakeholders, especially high-level stakeholders whose buy-in is needed to move forward. If you have done your work so far collaborativelyinvolve the core team in the brainstorming and interview key stakeholders from the startthis step should be more of an update than a surprise.

It’s at this point that you need to 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 move forward with. 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 is also important to recognize any trade-offs made so that senior managers understand where the risk is.

During these shares, you should explain deliverables and ask stakeholders if there is anything missing that they believe is mission critical. Discuss in more detail the remaining trade-offs if leadership still wants to go faster or cheaper.


Combining the five steps gives you a clear path to move 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 build confidence in the way forward.

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