The more I have studied and begun to practice the Agile methodology, the more I have discovered it is not strictly a new way of working. It is a cultural paradigm shift. The culture that supports Agile is one of transparency, accountability, humility (strongly coupled with confidence) and trust. Its purpose is to facilitate both doing the right work and doing the work right. Because Agile is built on the premise of valuing people, working products, collaboration, and change over rigid bureaucracy and strict policy, the natural outcome of Agile is, or ideally should be, innovation.
When we talk about creating an agile culture, what we really mean is how we express our creative capabilities to change or improve our circumstances. Creativity is an innate capability every human possesses. It’s at the heart of what drives our curiosity and passion; it is what fuels our desire to grow, both personally and professionally. It thrives in environments where ideas are welcomed, even if not adopted because they are free to be adapted. Ideas in and of themselves are conduits of creative thought that spark other creative thought. Cultures in which ideas are welcome tend also to be those that allow for experimentation, and the iterative reworking of ideas leads to breakthrough. No one will risk an idea a second time if the first one is shot down. And few ideas thrive in environments hostile to change. Agile cultures are, or should be, fertile soil for cultivating the idea seeds that lead to rich solutions.
If Agile is the soil of innovation, I see Design Thinking as the fertilizer that enriches the soil and makes it receptive to growth; the Miracle-Gro that accelerates ideation and discovery. Since its focus is empathizing with end users, it is the catalyst to discover new opportunities that lead to creative outcomes. The team I work on at IBM has found seeds of novel thought germinate faster when infused with Design Thinking because of the intense focus on the user experience over new a feature set. Ideas are ultimately enriched with clarity of outcome instead of excitement for new tools.
As an ecosystem for organizational growth, there are strong linkages between Creative Problem Solving (CPS) and the Agile and Design Thinking practices. CPS is a well-known, well-researched methodology for bringing novelty to problems, challenges, and opportunities. When we see CPS at the base of any methodology for process improvement, we begin see every process as an expression of creative opportunity. When we look at software development and product design as halves of the same whole, we might begin to consider how all of our work for customers and users is an exercise in harnessing our collective creative energy. Our purpose, ultimately, is to continuously produce something novel that is useful to our customers and end users. To me the implications of this thought are that Agile, Design Thinking, Lean, Scrum and other such practices are elegant frameworks for channeling our creative energy through a specific process to produce a specific type of creative product or outcome.
The Systems Model of Creativity, as articulated by my colleague Dr. John Cabra, is one way of looking at any process improvement effort as a means to producing novel and useful outcomes and therefore, creative change. Substitute “Design Thinking” for process, and you have output specific to empathizing with users. Plug in “Agile” and you have a pipeline for continuously improving a product or service.
This is not to suggest a simple “plug-and-play” model of cultivating innovation. However, considering the strong alignment Agile and Design Thinking practices have with CPS, there is strong evidence to suggest the union of the three offer tremendous synergy. This specific area of focus is rich in potential exploration.