Innovation is the natural outcome of an Agile culture. Or it should be. When well-structured teams adhere to both the practices and principles of Agile, they are engaging in a structured ritual of collaboration. That structure offers an opportunity for novelty, inquiry, and investigation of new ideas that can lead to breakthrough outcomes.
The Agile iteration begins with a planning session that leads to a user story backlog. These are raw ideas of a sort, generated to answer specific problems or challenges or address new opportunities. As they are assembled in a backlog they undergo sizing and scheduling exercises, to determine if they are the right work to do, how and when the work will be done, and what the sense of its impact will be.
Once sized and prioritized, user stories are committed to and managed in a rigorous pipeline of work. Only so many items can be opened and in progress at a time, to maximize focus and complete each story. As stories are completed according to their respective ‘done’ conditions and acceptance criteria, new stories move from the backlog to “work in process” until an iteration is complete. It is only at the completion of an iteration that items are stories are assessed in retrospect for their results:
- Did we achieve what we set out to accomplish?
- Do the stories appropriately speak to the challenges we were addressing?
- Were the needs of our customers and end users properly met?
- Did we succeed in delighting our consumers?
- Are we working well as a team in our delivery?
While many of the questions may be answered in the affirmative, the retrospective ritual demonstrates how teams can always be more in tune with their customers and themselves in providing quality deliverables. So as new questions arise out of the results, new stories fill the backlog in an attempt to improve quality and value. And so the discovery begins anew.
The rhythms and rituals of Agile are remarkably similar to those of breakthrough thinking. If the meaning of life was viewed as a series of problems, challenges or opportunities to be discovered and engaged, then finding our life purpose consists of a similar pattern: understanding the challenges before us; conjuring novel thoughts and ideas to meet those challenges; fashioning a plan; and carrying it out to completion – or rather, until we assess our results and see how they measure up – and starting anew, until we reach a breakthrough. The greater the breakthrough, the more likely we have expressed innovation: that mythical end state of doing things in a novel, impactful manner.
If in our course of discovery and delivery we find a new method of achieving our goals, a more exciting or efficient way of creating value, we open up for ourselves an even broader array of challenges and opportunities to explore and engage. From a macro view, Agile presents itself as a marvelously effective mechanism for applying human ingenuity to a rigorous framework and producing tremendous value. From a micro view, the value created is found in the who infinitely more than the how.
The best expression of innovation in an Agile context, therefore, lies within the team structure.
Immediate takeways for any team
What does innovation look like? How are your teams structured to unleash it?