A couple of weeks ago I had a meetup at Tech’n Trade, as a satellite event in Techsylvania, with topics like “Ability to experiment”, “Data driven mindset”, “Engage people in innovation process” and “Agile Tools”.

I plan to describe here my moment, Engage people in innovation process.

The whole meetup was around how Lean-Agile way of working can enhance our ability to have an experimentation culture, how metrics should be the indicators of pivot or persevere in our experimentation and how innovation is the only thing that keeps a company on top and feeds the experimentation culture.

Engage people in innovation process

Discussing about innovation is counterintuitive. It’s not like you plan to innovate something, after having a discussion with somebody.

Waterfall way of working doesn’t innovate for you. Lean-Agile way of working doesn’t innovate for you either. What Waterfall & Lean-Agile should do is enable the innovation. Set the right environment, give the space, drive the culture of innovation. And it’s not like Waterfall did not do that. It’s only that, nowadays, Lean-Agile does it better. We live in times where context changes in 2 weeks from now, months becomes a lifetime for a product, we don’t afford Waterfall anymore. Lean-Agile give you the flexibility to adapt to this rapid change and set the better environment, give space when needed (not when planned) and drive the build-measure-learn culture.

I had 2 dimensions for this topic: Product Innovation & Corporate Innovation. And I covered both dimensions by comparing traditional ways of doing something and Lean-Agile way. And what are the benefits, from engaging people in innovation process point of view, in Lean-Agile way.

Engage people in product innovation

Engaging people in innovation means respecting their ideas at a fundamental level. This implies they get the space to have the ideas.

Waterfall vs. iterative

An old fashion company is made up of experts that are used to work in sequences all the time: we start by creating the whole design upfront, and then the work passes from a department to another with specific milestones and handover procedures. This creates a routine, people do their job and then throw the activity over the fence to the next department. Innovation doesn’t have a place to live in this process, any idea that somebody might have is forgotten in the mist of the waterfall

A modern company has cross-functional teams, that work together in an iterative way, in order to reach a clear product vision. Experts in this iterative way of working have time build in the process for working on something else except the product backlog. We call it slack time in Scrum, IP Iteration in SAFe or Innovation Sprint, or whatever other name.

Managers vs. Leaders

An old-fashioned company has managers and their subordinates. Managers manage their subordinates. They tell them what they have to do, they tell them by when they must do it, they tell the how to do it. Managers don’t tell their subordinates Why they have to do something. “Why? Because I said so!”. More than that, when things go wrong, managers punish their subordinates for failing in the what, how and by when that they set. This type of management is obsolete. This will not motivate people in having ideas, reinventing things, do them better or do new things. They will just execute the bad ideas that their managers have.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” – Steve Jobs

A modern company has leaders and the entrepreneurs they empower. As Dan Pink said, management is great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self direction is better. And you want engagement from you colleagues. People will be way more motivated by having autonomy in their job. Leaders have to set the stage, manage the environment and the system where autonomous experts can express the best of what they can do.

Keep everybody busy vs. manage the flow

An old fashion company focuses on keeping everybody busy 100% of the time. This is how we got used to running a project or a company. Look at them, standing there and doing nothing. They should be doing something. So they start doing something. Most of the cases, when people get something to work on because they are free, somewhere else in the system somebody suffers because they become more and more overloaded. The overall value delivered by the system is not increased, it is actually decreased because of the disturbance in the system. Donald Reinertsen said that “operating a product development process near full utilization is an economic disaster”! Because of burnout. And nobody has time to reinvent the future, everybody is busy being busy.

A modern company focuses on improving flow efficiency by eliminating bottlenecks and decreasing waiting time, while giving the employees slack time for improvements and innovation. A modern company manages the systems, not the people, because people are already doing their best.

Fear of failure vs. fail fast

An old-fashioned company believes that failure is not an option and have the tendency to hide if something goes wrong. In such a company you get punished if you fail at something. Three times and you’re out. No bonus at the end of the year. No raise. You get called in meetings, humiliated. You don’t like this and you won’t allow it to happen again. So you hide your failures, you paint them in something else, you don’t even start something if it has a risk of failure.

90% of innovative ideas are doomed to fail.

A modern company promote a failing fast culture, accepts mistakes as long as these lead to a smart change of direction and provide useful information that help us change our behavior in a positive way. In such a company people have the environment and the space to have ideas and they have the culture to experiment and try these ideas out, just to find the next brilliant thing that will be a game changer.

Engage companies in corporate innovation

Project Management vs. Product Management

This is like saying manage people or manage work.

Old fashion companies do Project Management. They have the whole organization arranged around projects. They deliver activities, they deliver whatever as long as it’s on time, on budget and on scope. And this is the culture of the company. Being a Project Manager is very stressful, you have to manage a lot of things that are not actually in your control. Project Management is a killer of flow, and if you company culture is not to have flow, then you have a fully utilized company that delivers output and is risking economic disaster.

Modern companies put the Products in the center. And the whole organization arranges around this, so that these products are solving the customers problems with the highest quality and just in time. In a Product Organization your key people are the Product Managers. A Product Manager is an autonomous entrepreneur that owns a product from birth till the end, constantly checks the market and makes decisions, sees trends, knows what is mandatory to do now and what can wait for tomorrow, adapts fast and drives his product to be the best. In this culture innovation is a fact, otherwise Product Managers would have no products, so the organization would not exist.

Management by Objectives vs. Objectives & Key Results

Old fashion companies use a top-down, command and control set of annual objectives, that is static and based on big bets with long feedback cycles. Their culture is to take decisions when they know the least,  define in advance all the steps of the plan in detail, assume that market conditions will not change and that the plan is correct. These are waterfall objectives and they are project-based. These objectives focus on “delivering a set of projects approved by the management” rather that focusing on value.
In this paradigm teams exist to deliver projects. Nothing else, they execute a plan, there is no need for innovation, doing things differently and better or engagement in anything else except respecting the project plan.

Modern companies embrace the change with dynamic planning, smaller cycles and in an iterative model. Modern companies assume that market conditions will change therefor the plan will change. In this culture we know that our understanding of the problem will evolve as we learn, so we defer the decisions to the last responsible moment. 

“The only way it’s all going to go according to plan is if you don’t learn anything.” – Kent Beck

OKRs is a goal setting framework for a full-stack Lean-Agile organization. It focuses the company in short iterations and it provides transparency and alignment to an agreed and understood outcome. In OKRs the company gives you the Dream and Why’s and the employees have the autonomy to follow the dream in the ways that they see fitted, as the experts they are.

Innovation Days / Hackatons

Engaging companies in corporate innovations is about changing the culture of the company and setting the right environment for the people. Innovation Days is an effort for a Product Organization. You have tens of people that are not working on the products of the organization. But the advantages of these days cannot be measured in a traditional system of KPIs. First and most important, you drive a change in the culture of the company by connecting the whole organization to such an event. It’s modern, is disruptive, it’s flexible and it what “the cool kids from the block” do. We do it also! We are encouraged to have ideas, somebody listens to us, our culture is to think, not to execute.

The more ideas you have, the better the chances to find the one that changes the game are. Innovation days is a flood of ideas, most of them will fail but over-there somewhere is the one and you don’t stand a chance without flooding the organization with ideas.

Conclusion

Modern companies need more than just an innovation team, they need more than an R&D department, they need to create an environment that encourages entrepreneurship at all level, because great ideas can come up from anyone within the company. But ideas by themselves are worthless. They only bring value when they are embedded within a dedicated team that can pursue them, follow a vision and experiment their way to success.