Thursday, May 29, 2014

Is Agile the friend or foe of creativity?

 Agile stifles innovation when stakeholders dictate "how" and not get "why" and "what.

As an emergent management philosophy and methodology, Agile spurs many fiery debates, such as Does Agile improve software quality or is it the very reason for defects increase? Are Agile making manager’s happy, employees unhappy? Can Agile thrive in a large enterprise environment? Here is another one: Is Agile the friend or the foe of creativity?

Agile is really a means to realize value: Despite the facilitation for creativity, whether this results in useful improvements is up to your organizational culture and how well people are encouraged to be creative. The spirit of creativity and innovation will be more influenced by mindset, culture, and processes or behaviors around the teams rather than whether Agile itself is used or not. Creativity is the more of a culture and environment thing rather being tied to a delivery process. Agile projects that have great engagement and dialogue can be a fertile ground for creativity around how solutions are structured, designed and delivered. Thus, innovation and creativity are affected by the system at play in the organization. No matter what method you use to deliver software, if someone in the hierarchy offers up lots of "no",  it will be hard for innovation to take root. Some agile practices, for instance, retrospectives, primarily designed to allow for constant improvement; or iteration and sprint review, primarily designed to allow to have customer representatives and team feedback on product increment, could result in some creative or innovative improvements. 

Agile stifles innovation when stakeholders dictate "how" and not get "why" and "what": When a team in agile gets "how" in the format of a user story, they tend to look only in one direction. But when they get "what" or "why" in the form of the user story (store the accepted/not accepted value), they can think of the optimal solution. So, if agile teams focus on getting user stories in the form of "why" and "what", they can be creative and innovative at the same time.

Agile is a fantastic way of working to involve everyone in the process of creation and delivery. The team does the analysis and design themselves rather than depend on a 'designer'. If this doesn't result in increased creativity, then what does? The brainstorming sessions that make up 'backlog grooming' and 'Sprint planning' help the team understand and challenge the bigger picture as well. No more can a developer say – “I know my bit of code and none of the others!”. Within the Agile family, there are many flavors to choose from. Scrum is mostly applied. Of course introducing a new method takes time and there is a learning curve. Start small with a few teams and the effect of creativity or innovation will be visible in a few months. Just be prepared to challenge the resistance from people not willing to change.

Creativity and innovation are more a function of motivation and latitude. A motivated team will be creative and will innovate, but the team must have the latitude. The organization must allow for learning, experimentation and failure. That means you cannot run at maximum capacity. All structure and business processes tend to funnel creativity in a specified direction; Agile is no different in this regard. Given no structure and no process to follow, creative individuals have ultimate freedom, but no inherent drive to find solutions to specific problems in a timely manner. 

Organizational culture stifles creativity and innovation, not the frameworks used to deliver new products and services. Agile is neither a product-oriented philosophy nor an innovation-centric philosophy; Agile is a system development philosophy that assumes your customers and stakeholders know what's best for the product and for the consumer. If a change to agile methodologies has stifled creativity, then it pays to look into the motivations that drove the move to agile originally. If the move was overly motivated by solely increasing productivity and specifically at the cost of thinking innovatively, then that could be the real reason why creativity suffered.

Therefore, when done correctly, Agile actually aids in creativity and innovation. The creative solutions come out of retrospectives and collaboration within teams. But you have to have a culture that allows people to try new ideas, make mistakes and learn. As negative culture like foe will kill creativity far faster than Agile will. If the culture is always to get it right the first time and move on, then Agile is actually like the friend to aid in creativity.


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