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Agile Innovation: Principles & Methods


Agility in continuously adapting to change has never been more important than the present. Our world is more complex; even chaotic as everyone and nearly everything (think IoT, Internet of Things) is connecting in endless, technology-enabled ways. Hierarchies are giving way to networks of people and resources that must be aligned and brought to bear on innovation just to keep up.

Most leaders have heard about the concept of “Agile” methods, commonly associated with software development in the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s. However, they don’t realize there are many methods that adhere to agile principles that have been successfully applied, not only in software development, but across industries, service companies, non-profits, and civic institutions.

As agile methods replaced linear, or waterfall processes in software development, the same is occurring relative to strategy and innovation in a more universal way. Old-school, linear strategic planning is largely obsolete, with exceptions, and agile practices continue to gain traction as more enterprises learn about the applications and opportunities to innovate.

The Agile Manifesto was presented to the world in 2001 by a cohort of 17 leaders in software development (see who proffered four values and 12 principles of agile. In this space we present the 4 values, however it is worth the time to visit the Agile Manifesto (link above) to weigh the 12 principles.

The Agile Manifesto’s 4 statements of value (slightly adapted) are:

1. Individuals and interactions are valued over processes and tools.
2. Working product/service is valued over excessive documentation.
3. Customer collaboration is valued over contract negotiation.
4. Responding to change is valued over following a plan.

In practice, the agile approach to innovation:

 Promotes close collaboration by small teams of creative, cross-functional people, aligned via shared objectives and guided by simple rules, often connecting new networks of people and resources in new combinations.
 Emphasizes ideation, strategy, tactics and action on a highly accelerated basis.
 Depends on iterative think-work-adapt cycles across collaborating groups.
So, how does the agile mindset relate to agile methods in practice? We can begin by remembering that there are many methods or practices that adhere to agile principles, but vary in techniques, tools, and the problems, opportunities, and scales to which they are best applied.

Our objective here is to compare five recognized practices, or methods, that embrace agile principles. Many equate SCRUM with agile. Actually, SCRUM, its name derived from the rugby analog, is one of the most recognized methods of practice that applies agile principles, but it doesn’t define agile.

The attached table provides a generalized comparative analysis of five agile methods. In addition to SCRUM, we have taken a look at methods that have gained popularity on a global scale, including Strategic Doing, Google Ventures’ Sprint, Kanban, and Lean Development. The analysis provides a glimpse of each method as follows:

 Guiding Themes
 Favorable Conditions for Use
 Prescribed Roles
 Prescribed Process
 Approach to Cultural Change
 Advantages
 Challenges
Table is adapted from Rigby, Sutherland, and Takeuchi; Embracing Agile, April 2016, Harvard Business Review.

Our analysis demonstrates that, while each method has common principles, each has different applications in practice. All five methods have interesting origins and histories rooted in market-driven innovation, and each has contributed to some of the greatest breakthroughs in process management, product and service development, and collaborative initiatives that have changed the world.

A key distinction of these methods is the degree of prescriptiveness; how detailed roles, processes, tools, sequences, and time frames are prescribed by each. Lean Development and Kanban are the least prescriptive of the five methods, optimizing systems and workflows as a whole while reducing waste (Lean), and adding structure, visual elements and speed to work flows (Kanban).

Kanban, translated from its Japanese origins as “Visual Card” has also been adapted to stage or task-based project management software that has become popular including Trello, Asana, and SmartSheet, among others. While Lean Development and Kanban are considered agile methods, Lean principles of minimizing waste and continuously optimizing organizational systems and the visualization of workflows and efficiencies of Kanban may apply to all agile methods.

Strategic Doing, Google Ventures’ Sprint (GV Sprint), and SCRUM are methods that define prescribed processes, tools, and work flows for innovation. While SCRUM and GV Sprint have direct application to product and service development with rapid and iterative prototyping, they are largely deployed within organizations. Strategic Doing, developed by Ed Morrison and incubated at the Purdue University Agile Strategy Lab, is designed to connect and align networks of people within organizations, but also to cross boundaries, leveraging the resources of groups/networks outside of the primary organization in collaborative innovation.

There are also clear differences among the prescriptive methods in terms of the degree to which they specify process, the duration and sustainability of each, and the scalability of the methods. The GV Sprint approach is to assemble a small sprint team, ideally seven people, and apply the method over a concentrated period of five days. GV Sprint is highly prescriptive and deviation from the discipline is strongly discouraged. The advantage is that the five day sprint surfaces and prioritizes objectives, designs and develops a prototype product/service/process, and then interviews five prospective customers on the last day, providing instant market feedback. Feedback may drive the need for another Sprint or set the course for refined development in the case of favorable market reaction.

SCRUM is a detailed, yet moderately prescriptive, method that is typically deployed within organizations that wish to foster agile product/service development on a sustainable basis. An internal Product Owner and a SCRUM Master lead a relatively small SCRUM team (7 to 9 people) in weekly work efforts known as Sprints (though not related to the GV Sprint). The method requires daily, face-to-face interaction with teammates, continuous improvement, and product/service prototypes within relatively short periods, e.g. a few weeks. Retrospective and forward-looking sprint meetings foster review and adaptation of each work increment. SCRUM may be scaled to integrate multiple teams, although this greatly increases complexity.
As mentioned, Strategic Doing may be deployed within organizations, but is also commonly applied in connecting groups and networks that cross organizational boundaries. This discipline is designed to be scalable and sustainable and, unlike the other methods reviewed here, isn’t necessarily focused on product/service prototyping.

Strategic Doing forms collaborations quickly in open, loosely connected networks, often revealing hidden assets and resources that can be applied to initiatives of mutual strategic value. This method has been successfully deployed in service of relatively small efforts, say at the department level, and also at the level of regional economic development, aligning and activating networks that cross commercial and civic economies.

Strategic Doing typically involves a training element that applies the process in a mock scenario, gamification exercise. This training is often in combination with an applied workshop facilitated by a trained guide. The method is organized around a core team (7 to 10 people) that provides leadership, communication, and plays a critical role in designing and guiding innovating networks.

Training and applied workshops follow a detailed process that is focused around a problem, need, or opportunity and then moved through prescribed steps known as a workshop “pack”. The process reveals assets and resources offered by participants in service of the effort, and fosters an efficient and transparent means of setting strategy and identifying desired outcomes. Success metrics are established and simple, yet structured, decision-making is applied in selecting a priority, or Pathfinder, project that is put into action immediately. Workshops are typically three to four hours, and combined training and applied workshops consume a day.

Communications are established and work increments are set according to practical need. The most common iterative cycle is 30 days, referred to as a 30/30; a retrospective look at the previous 30 days and an adapted action plan for the next 30 days. The core team is always looking to leverage new assets, reach across boundaries, and guide strategically aligned, innovating networks.

It is clear that all of these methods adhere to agile values and principles, and that there are distinctions in how they may be applied. It is also clear that all of the methods can drive collaborative innovation, and can move organizational and institutional cultures toward sustained vitality in our complex, competitive world.

Please take a look at the attached table for more insight into each method. We’ve only scratched the surface in this piece and these methods, though framed by simple rules, require persistent, hard work to pay off. We think it’s worth it!


Agile Innovation Table

Table Adapted from Rigby, Sutherland, and Takeuchi; Embracing Agile, April 2016, HBR