The Agile Tribe

“10 + 1 pointers to a more innovative Agile journey!”

on July 15, 2010

Author: Chris Zaharia

Someone suggested that I write a blog on my top tips for using innovation with Agile to make great things happen.

From Flickr - Cayusa.

This got me thinking about Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. In it he explains how start-ups have taken over previous market leaders across many industries, time and time again because they chose to introduce “disruptive innovations”. What this means is that it may be better to release a product or service that would cannibalise or even replace your core business than to wait for a competitor to beat you to it! Sounds like Agile to me. You collaborate with and learn from your customers what they really want. Most people will accept the less than perfect if they can see that at each step it is fulfilling one of their needs.

A success story that reflects this is Atlassian, one of the most effective adapters of Agile in Australia. I was fortunate enough to meet Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder, back in 2008 when he explained how they identified that their existing customers found enterprise software much too complex to use. So they listened, developed and delivered an innovative suite of products which gave customers a simple, easy to use group of solutions, resulting in taking market share from previous leaders who were ineffective at innovating and turning an initial investment of $10,000 into over $75million in revenue business. We now see some of these products (Jira, Confluence and GreenHopper) being used by the likes of companies such as Macquarie, BMW and Adobe.

I’m not in the same league as those innovators at Atlassian but I am an innovator and offer a few words of advice from my own experience.

  1. Don’t let others knock your ideas down even if they think it could never work. Gather Energisers around you. They will provide support for your ideas and constructive criticism when appropriate as opposed to Energy Sappers who will say NO to all your ideas until you are discouraged to bring any more up.
  2. Go to GenY employees for ideas, and graduates who have recently finished University, as they usually have the latest perspectives on the most current trends and technologies and are more than happy to share their ideas. Consider giving them the time to develop their own side-projects too, possibly even create a graduate innovation initiative for them to conceptualise and deliver projects with formal teams and budgets. Similar initiatives have been a great success at companies such as Suncorp and Deloittes.
  3. Even go as far as to approach the younger iGeneration and children for ideas. Their perspective can bring surprisingly blunt and down-to-earth approaches that might jumpstart innovations. Don’t dismiss the GenXs and Baby Boomers either, as they can give a more realistic perspective which can enhance ideas to become feasible products. In fact, Deloittes has an effective method of hatching more realistic innovative solutions by pairing up a junior and senior employee to come up with ideas.
  4. Don’t leave innovative features that come up in a forgotten backlog due to the difficulty in estimating them. One way to address this is to perform a spike. Another method is to develop a throw-away prototype and demonstrate it.
  5. Allow customers or work colleagues from other parts of the business to take a look at the product. You can gain a variety of ideas which can introduce new approaches you may have forgotten or not even thought of by giving access to the product’s current iteration or via an communications channel like Yammer to get feedback from a much larger internal audience.
  6. Implementing an idea management system where anyone within your department or organisation can share ideas or challenges and vote on the best solutions.
  7. Bringing people in from outside your core team to take part or at least observe parts of your project. This may result in more efficient methods/processes being identified and taken up by the team.
  8. Have team members participate in industry workshops and events and then present what they have learnt to the rest of the team.
  9. Don’t limit yourself to only looking at competitors. Look at industries which are at the forefront of the technologies you are adapting. For example, in the insurance industry, a market leader in online retailing may have features that no other insurance website has and adapting it would bring in efficiencies in navigation that translate to increased business value.
  10. Actively follow the latest trends and technologies in as many industries as you can, and consider using a checklist of these when brainstorming at the concept phase of your Agile project.
  11. Finally, you can look at brainstorming sessions or even creative-thinking techniques for individuals such as SCAMPER. I found “Thinkertoys” by Michael Michalko to be a great book with lots of techniques to help you come up with ideas in the first place.

My final word of advice is this:
I see many people come up with great ideas and say they will do something but never drive themselves enough to act on it. You have to do something about it to really make it happen. Don’t just keep your ideas to yourself, otherwise you may be living with regrets about what might have been. Apple’s Steve Jobs once said “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” so be a leader and make those ideas come true.

You CAN change the world!


5 responses to ““10 + 1 pointers to a more innovative Agile journey!”

  1. James says:

    Can’t agree more Chris. So many people come up with great ideas but expect others to follow them through for them. Need action more than just words! Nice post.

  2. Ryan McKergow says:

    Great blog Chris! And again, I voice the comments of James that you need to follow up with your own ideas. You’re the one who came up with it and are passionate about it, so you can’t expect others to have the same passion if it’s not their idea.

    Chris, in regards to your comments about building a prototype, what are your thoughts on creating a throw away program (e.g. making a usuable piece of software) verse a sketch on paper? Do you think the former can set the wrong expectations?

  3. Good stuff Chris! Good advice on coming up with innovative ideas and making them happen. I like the analogy of the “Tipping Point”. A huge amount of effort is required initially to sell an idea and get people on board. For all this effort there is initially no visible result, which can be disheartening… This is when you need people who trust in you and can give you energy. Till you reach the tipping point when the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.

  4. Chris Zaharia says:

    I completely agree, you’re the one who has the passion to make it happen and most of the time you will have to lead the initiative yourself to make it a reality.

    Ryan, I can’t speak for a complete comparison between both methods of prototyping as I have in most cases used throw away to demonstrate concepts but I can say that I’ve had much more positive feedback from clients when I demonstrate the concept instead of just describing it to them.

    Clients, particularly the non-technical ones, really seem to like experiencing a visual interpretation and even having a play with the system. This also demonstrates to them that your team or yourself are actually capable in building the system, especially for more complex or unique applications. I’d say it can more confirm expectations versus a paper sketch as I’ve had clients who did not believe a more unique idea can even be built until they have seen it in action.

  5. Ryan McKergow says:

    That’s intereting to hear that perspective. Sounds like you’ve had some good experiences with the throw away concept. 🙂

    The reason I asked is that I have been told that creating a throw away gives the expectation that the software is close to completation and can get picking about the design.

    I’m sure both sides of the story have their pro’s and con’s.

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