Innovate

Creativity is an essential competence for teams to develop, unlocking high-value solutions to common organisational problems.

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Creativity is an oft overlooked delivery competence. It is a discipline worthy of explicit attention because innovative thinking is what drives the delivery engine. Fostering an open culture which invites questions and challenges established norms is essential for solving problems in new and unexpected ways.

“If I had asked the public what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” - Henry Ford

Objectives

Ideal innovation culture should have the following characteristics:

  • Culture of openness

    All team members are encouraged to contribute to identifying problems and solutions. Invite contributions from quieter team members, and ensure everyone’s views are heard.

  • Goals not solutions

    The wider organisational context of a work programme should be articulated to the team members to develop a shared vision of the team’s goals. Explaining these as goals (what is required) rather than solutions (how the requirement will be achieved) sets the stage for discussions about the best approach. Presenting the team with the “solution” leaves no scope for creative delivery approaches.

  • Clear constraints

    Too much latitude in a wide problem space can be overwhelming, as there are too many ways to achieve a particular goal. Setting out constraints reduces the potential solution space, helpfully limiting the available approaches to a handful of comparable options. Constraints can take a range of forms:

    • Technical - “We must continue to leverage our investment in a framework or platform.”
    • Time to market - “The system needs to be operational in time for a launch event.”
    • Quality - “The system needs to have an exceptionally low failure rate.”
    • Scale - “The system needs to perform at scale.”

Taking the time to review, challenge, and creatively deconstruct these constraints is an essential competence of your delivery team.

Developing competency

To achieve the objectives outlined above, consider the following suggestions:

  1. Let teams step up

    Give teams the space to solve their own problems without explicit instructions. By setting goals and constraints, any solution that a team delivers should be fit for purpose. If it is not, review whether the goals and constraints were set and understood.

    Maturity indicators

    • Teams make collective explicit commitment to a solution (and in later planning activities, they commit to delivery too)
    • Team members are familiar with the organisational context of their work programme
    • Goals and constraints are presented to the team, rather than required solutions
    • Encourage teams to be realistic about what they can achieve: it’s always tempting to over-commit in order to impress, over-estimate the team’s own capabilities, and underestimate the scale of a new challenge
  2. Establish two-way dialog

    Innovation requires a mutual respect and understanding of both organisational context and technology capability. In some cases, technology may offer better value if processes are changed to fit technology capabilities. In other cases, organisational needs require technology to support specific use cases. In reality, there is a negotiated middle ground between the two.

    Ensuring respectful and thoughtful discussions between both technology and organisational specialists is essential.

    Maturity indicators

    • Team decision making involves all necessary parties to understand both the organisational and technical contexts of the solution
    • Common terminology (or a “ubiquitous language”) is explicitly documented
  3. Encourage creative deconstruction

    Allow teams to deconstruct constraints they are presented with. For example, constraints to deliver high scale alongside some new feature could be broken down: the feature delivered first, but rolled out slowly to create more time for performance testing and optimisation to be carried out.

    Maturity indicators

    • Constraints are frequently deconstructed and reframed around organisational needs
    • Ensure Product Owners are equipped to evaluate why the constraints are needed (see also: the Five Whys Method) and are empowered to make compromises on behalf of other stakeholders
    • Ensure that wider organisational review processes are in place to address particularly problematic constraints, or explain innovative new ways of working back to the wider organisation
  4. Create intentional architecture

    The team should discuss common capabilities and envision the architectural components required to deliver them. In the Scaled Agile Framework this is referred to as an Architectural Runway. While the work items describing “just enough” architecture will be prioritised and scheduled during planning, envisioning them in the first place should be seen as a creative act.

    Maturity indicators

    • Explicitly tracked architectural work items in a backlog
    • Little code refactoring needed as new features and requirements are identified and developed
    • Architectural risks and decisions are logged and reviewed regularly
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Reading matter

The following books are recommended to help develop competency in this area:

Book cover art for The Innovator's Dilemma
The Innovator's Dilemma

Clayton M Christensen

A classic introduction to one of the paradoxes of innovation: how market leaders can make logical decisions but still be usurped by new market competitors. Followed up by "The Innovator's Solution" (also recommended).

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