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Inspiring Innovation: Has IT had it right all along?

Endless numbers of well-established organizations are experiencing an earth-shattering decline due to the rise of more “agile” and “innovative” competitors. The rapidly shifting marketplace has even the most reputable companies grappling for a life vest that promises to help them establish innovation and ride out the storm in one piece.

If nothing else, the past decade has provided assurance that the disruption of traditional markets is a problem for companies that have experienced previous success but have grown too bloated to keep up with their more agile competition. Additionally, there is considerable consensus that “innovation” is the solution—or for many companies, the only remaining option. But the question then becomes, how to inspire innovation?

The Promise of Innovation

What if your new product development team could improve its positive returns on over half of its new product introductions? What if your HR could recruit 75% of its most highly ranked prospects? What if your marketing department could improve its lead generation mechanism by a factor of 5? What would it mean to your organization if 95% of your workforce was emotionally engaged—reaching maximum potential productivity—on a daily basis?

The promises of “innovation” are enticing, but what if a solution—a tried and true solution has been staring us in the face? What if that very solution is already playing an active role in one of your own departments? I’m referring to Scrum. Is it possible that the scrum methodology holds within it the principles that are needed to address the management dilemmas and calls for innovation that characterize our current state of market volatility? There is well-documented evidence that tried and true management principles are a good fit for a market in which outcomes are predictable and desired results are known entities. But what if scrum holds the key to our current dilemma: how to make innovation happen on demand.

Just for the IT department?

As a man who has spent his career in software sales (currently: CEO of a rapidly growing software company based out of Amsterdam) I’ve been around the Scrum methodology since its advent over thirty years ago. While agile innovation methods have undeniably revolutionized the way that IT departments function—from increasing speed to market of new products to boosting team members’ productivity and quality of work—my underlying thought was always, “that just works for the IT guys.”

Let me try to explain what I’m talking about. Everyone knows an IT guy—many of them fit easily into the stereotype. Undeniably bright but lacking socially sanctioned communication skills, the IT type thrive in a structured environment that provides them with predictable deadlines, clear and realistic workloads and efficiency in interpersonal communications. The fundamentals of scrum match up well with these known predilections, often so well that it conjures up questions of the chicken/egg conundrum. Because the two—IT and scrum—are so heavily intertwined, it is easy to overlook the benefits of scrum as a broader management style that facilitates innovation.

Consider scrum’s fundamentals. Opportunities are tackled in small groups that are comprised of individuals who possess complimentary, cross-functional skill sets. The team then manages its own tasks and is accountable to the group for the work. Each team has a product owner who is the one responsible for delivering value to stakeholders (internal, external, or both). In common practice, this person comes from the “business” and does all the communicating between the team and the stakeholders for whom the team is working. This person is primarily responsible for prioritization of opportunities and the continual re-assessment of that portfolio according to the most recent estimates of value to the stakeholders. The product owner doesn’t determine what the team should do or how long each task will take. Instead, the team creates a plan that includes how much and what tasks the team will take on, how they plan to do it, and what the definition of “done” is. Then the work is accomplished in short time cycles (usually 2-3 weeks) called sprints, guided by a scrum master who protects the team from outside distractions, allowing them to maximize the potential of their collective intelligence.

The Benefits

  • Transparency
    By clearly defining the roadmap (including who does what, how progress will be accomplished, and what “done” is) the process is immediately visible to everyone. Not only does this help clear up any individual complaints about pulling more weight than a colleague, but it also sets clear boundaries for management. One of the dangers of traditional management is to overload your best performers with inane duties as a reward or simply out of necessity because assigning the work to the high achiever ensures it will get done. In the short term, this is manageable, but it is undesirable and unsustainable for an organization that has its sights set on increasing innovation.

  • Predictability
    Another benefit that is closely tied to transparency is predictability. A well-known aspect of scrum is the daily stand-up, in which team members meet briefly to discuss progress and challenges they are facing. By meeting briefly on a daily basis, you allow team members to give updates on progress and to ask for help proactively. Engaging in roadblocks with the group allows problems to be overcome more easily and provides management with predictable outcomes.

  • Creativity
    By removing individuals from their organizational silos and placing them in teams of with a diverse skill set and manageable workload, you set the stage for the maximization of collective intelligence. (Phenomenon referenced here.) Engaging team members from across organizational disciplines as collaborators not only adds to the variety of solutions discovered to a fixed series of complex problems, but it helps build trust and respect among colleagues.

  • Productivity
    By focusing the group’s work on the execution of a high priority project, you’ve eliminated the need for redundant meetings and excessive planning. Additionally, by clearly defining roles and leaving the group to self-regulate, you’ve increased the productivity of the management layer as well. Micro-management is antithetical to the values of Scrum!

  • Customer Facing
    Arguably the most important aspect of scrum is that it is guided by the needs of stakeholders, whether external, internal or both. Scrum is continuously adaptable to the ever-changing desires of the customer. While the stakeholders do not get to decide how something gets accomplished, they can be assured that their problem will be addressed on a timeframe directly correlated to the priority of the problem. Scrum also helps with prioritization—while the project owner doesn’t get to decide who does what or on what timeline, he or she can define the projects that have the highest priority.

The Downfalls of SCRUM

Scrum—for as much as it eschews traditional levels interpersonal contact—it relies upon a basis of communication that is almost always done face-to-face. Part of the “team” aspect of SCRUM happens when the group interacts, even if that interaction is side by side at a computer screen. Scrum works exceedingly well for small teams that see each other every day.

Conclusion

To be clear, an agile management style doesn’t mean “do what I say, only faster.” And I would be equally wary of any manager throwing around scrum buzzwords (timeboxing, sprints, stand-ups) while demonstrating the opposite in his or her behavior. Scrum principles work for innovation when the spirit of the principles is lived—not just requested—by upper management.

An important question for established companies to keep considering is: “can innovation happen here?” “Are we as a management team leaving room, providing resources, and are we capable of recognizing the ideas that will define our company moving forward?” If the answer is no to any of those questions, it is time to consider agile management. Maybe the IT guys had it right all along.

Written By: Jean-Jacques Vossen, innovation evangelist and CEO of Mavim, a rapidly growing software company based out of Amsterdam. To those who find software and innovation incompatible, Jean-Jacques responds: “Does software create innovation? Of course not. Does it create room for innovation by facilitating the processes necessary to practice agile principles? Absolutely.”

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