Agile innovation: the holy grail of business

Innovation is the holy grail of business. In the current business world you either innovate, or die, and this is clear from the changing face of retail and banking to name two sectors experiencing rapid change. Yet, innovation is not something that can be taken out of the box and rolled out – you can’t buy it off the shelf. It can’t be just turned on when it’s needed. In fact, it is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts in business. Relabeling an organisation will not, on its own, suddenly spark innovation. Creating an office space with skateboard walkways, on its own, will merely create a fun place to work, but will not guarantee innovation.

Innovation in an existing organisation is much harder to perform than the creation of an innovative start-up. Can a large organisation innovate? Amazon and Google seem to exist purely to innovate. Will the rate of innovation at Amazon and Google slow down as they mature or have those companies been designed with a corporate mentality of constant innovation? It is not money or the size of the corporation that will dictate innovation.

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it”. – (Steve Jobs)

I think the answer to the riddle is in the nature of innovation itself. Innovation is a state of mind; it is not something that is turned on by request. From the quote above, you have ‘to get it’. It’s about the people and the leadership. Innovation often happens in your favourite coffee shop or on the journey home, not necessarily in your skateboard equipped office space. In my experience, it comes from a feeling that you can do better, a desire to make a change, and the feeling of freedom to be able to experiment and attempt something new, as well as to see a problem and know I can do better. Innovation is a personal ‘thing’, and a team ‘thing’, as one person will rarely be able to turn an idea into reality.

What creates innovation?

So, what is it that creates innovation and what stifles it? Innovation is clearly about people, attitude and the freedom to experiment without the fear of failure. What can an organisation do to stimulate and encourage innovation? One factor is leadership. How you lead your team or organisation will directly affect the level of innovation. Another factor is how you structure teams and manage them. A growing number of companies, even if it’s low, will give employees time and resources to experiment and to innovate.

Waterfall software development has been copying methods used successfully for large high-risk engineering projects that often take years to complete. However, engineering projects require predictable outcomes. If you are building a three-lane bridge, you can’t suddenly change this to a four-lane bridge half way through! These outcomes are guaranteed by the use of highly structured and formalised processes.

The innovation stage is at the front end of the process before the idea is then locked down and built. Once the idea has been agreed, the waterfall process will relentlessly work its way to delivering exactly what was agreed on at the start of the process. A change will be costly, difficult, and time-consuming. While this is the only way you can build a bridge or a skyscraper, it is not the only way to build software.

For an existing business or a start-up, software will be the key enabler of growth. We need to maintain our software so we can react to sudden changes such as the need make a quick response to a competitor or a change in the marketplace. If we build software exclusively like we build skyscrapers or bridges, then we will be tied into long periods of development with little opportunity for change. How does that work in today’s rapidly changing business world? It doesn’t.

Why agile?

In the early 1990’s, a number of competing development methodologies started to appear to try and address the issue of long development cycles and the difficulty of changing existing software to keep up with business changes such as scrum, extreme programming (XP); crystal; adaptive software development (ASD); feature-driven development (FDD); and the dynamic-systems-development method (DSDM). It was clear that software development needed to break away from development methodologies designed to support large long timescale engineering projects.

In 2001, 17 developers who called themselves “organisational anarchists” met in Snowbird, Utah’ from this meeting a single approach arrived. The term agile was coined for the new approach. It was adopted from the title of a book, “Agile Competitors and Virtual Organizations: Strategies for Enriching the Customer”. The book gave examples of companies that were creating new ways of adapting to more turbulent markets.

Being able to quickly react to turbulence was the defining quality that they were looking for. This was swiftly followed by the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development,” which spelt out four key values. They then developed 12 operating principles, called “Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto.” From 2001 onwards, all development frameworks that aligned with these values and principles were then known as agile techniques.

Four values of agile documented in 2001: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

How does agile support innovation?

How can the agile approach affect innovation? It’s clear from what we know of innovation that a focus on individuals responding to change, an environment which favours interactions over documentation, and a close collaboration with customers will create an atmosphere that will foster innovation.

Agile has short cycles of development, a review after each cycle, full-time involvement from the product owner (or the owner of the idea), the opportunity for experiment, and innovation is built into the methodology. A concept in agile is ‘fail fast’. An idea can be turned into a working solution quickly and it can then be tested to see if it meets the hopes of the developers. If it fails, then this will leave the team to be able to move onto another idea with little time or money wasted. This also enables teams to experiment and develop new ideas with little risk.

The rapid expansion of consumer computing in the 90’s, the internet, e-commerce, and later the first smartphones which enabled mobile computing, forced the software industry into creating agile. When the Snowbird meeting happened, the world was waiting for agile which the Snowbird attendees delivered.

An agile world?

In July 2008, the Apple App Store opened with 7.7k games and 15.3k apps. As of July 2017, those figures had risen to 783k games and 2,338k apps. In that time period, 180 billion apps had been downloaded from the App Store. There are a number of factors that have enabled this growth. However, this growth would not have been possible without the widespread adoption of agile methods.

Agile has also arguably been the trigger for a wave of new development tools that support agile development and support an environment where high-quality software can be developed quickly and changes to software can be done quickly and efficiently. The ultimate culmination of nearly 20 years of method and tool improvements is the DevOps revolution.

The breakaway from innovation stifling waterfall methods to innovation enabling agile methods is now possible for most business scenarios. The increasing number of start-ups, new apps, and the digital transformation occurring in existing businesses is a testament that innovation is now fully supported by the agile world.

Written by Head of Test Common Services at DVLA, Wayne Tofteroo