Saturday, November 16, 2013

Does Agile Stimulate or Stifle Innovation

Agile is not anti-innovation; but is Agile the tunnel to capture innovation light?

From industry survey, people are not generally impressed by the product that an Agile team produces. They are impressed by the time, money, and quality - but not the product itself. Many Agile projects also suffer a serious lack of innovation, Does it mean Agile stifle innovation?

Based on 12 Agile Principles, Agile encourages customer-centric thinking and continuous improvement as well. If an Agile team is judged as lacking in innovation, consider why that would be? Could it be that the team is not asked to be innovative in the first place? Not rewarded for innovation? Forced to create useless (not innovative) features? None of these issues are intrinsic to Agile - they are just anti-patterns of behavior in a work process that undeservedly "claims" the label "agile"? Any practice which is adhered to over time without continual improvement can lead to stagnation.

Agile is a set of principles, which for a lot of people might be too abstract to do something concrete with. Therein lies the value of Scrum: it translates those principles to a set of default practices, which are to be experimented with and built upon as soon as you get to a high enough level of understanding. But therein also lies the pitfall of Scrum (and other frameworks): as soon as people start to just do the practices, without realizing why, without trying to grow and improve, all is lost. The problem mainly lies in the fact that a lot of people don't understand what they're trying to achieve with the various practices of Scrum.

Innovation requires an atmosphere of flexibility, creativity - iterative development and regular feedback from users and stakeholders can promote this in an agile setting. However, there’re pitfalls to think silo upon product/service design. Creativity and innovation in service design are a cultural issue - they require intense multi-disciplinary collaboration. In Agile the temptation is to think about products one feature at a time. But the optimal design has characteristics of consistency and wholeness.

Agile is a way of working that reduces waste and improves the flow of work. Agile does not hinder the use of innovative ideas in any way, be they related to the work product or the work process. Agile teams are innovative in three ways - refining and improving their own processes (and so adding value), developing innovative technical solutions to implement features (and so adding value) and finally by coming up with new possibilities and suggestions that improve features (and drop features out) or even totally new features not previously envisaged (and so adding value).

Innovation Check Point: How do you know if your Agile methodologies either Scrum or others embraces innovation? Here are some quick tests: (1) Is there an explicit step for ethnography? (2) Is there a workflow for idea generation, ideal selection, and idea refinement? (3) Do you find Strong Centers in products before you commit to building them? (4) Do you have a way of keeping a product authentic to its Strong Center as it gets unfolded? (5) Do you have phase gates around a discernible pre-production step? Yes - phase gates are critical to doing good design and innovation.

If you want innovation, just being Agile isn’t enough, don’t forget design. Agile is a tool/way of working, for creating high quality software and constant improvement that meets the customer expectation. Agile teams are excellent at emergent design, but are not excellent at up front design. To put the other way, Agile is still a software engineer's philosophy, it hasn't really evolved into a Product Developer's philosophy yet. It required open minds in the leadership of the Agile to make that evolutionary jump. A large part of what makes an interactive product innovative is the Product Design. Design is inseparable from innovation in the interactive space. Does your process focus on Wholeness, Consistency and Virtue? Where in the process do you establish the Design language and by what means do you "unfold" Wholeness in keeping with that Design language?

Therefore, Agile as a philosophy with strong principles to encourage innovation and continuous improvement, however, the varies of agile platforms or methodologies may have limitation or restriction to inspire design thinking or attract creative talent, If the Agile projects produce the mediocre products, do not just look at symptom or blame on Agile, but digging into the root causes, and find solution to inspire creative thinking and drive game-changing/curve-jumping ideas into products.


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