I actually think about this topic quite a bit. There is mention of innovation in almost every job ad and project charter I see. But really what is innovation? How do we innovate? How do we encourage innovation?
I think we frequently believe that innovations are large changes rather than small incremental improvements. When we think about how to innovate we get stuck on trying to find that next big idea. Or else we try to find the software tool or process no one has heard of so we can present a significant change from the current status. So we try to come up with the new idea and then revert back to the current status when the next big thing can’t be found.
Then we hear from management and others that we need to be innovative. Like we aren’t trying.
I have found that two concepts help out greatly in helping to make projects more innovative.
1) Encourage the small innovations
If you encourage the small innovations in people, process, and technology, I have found that the large innovations will follow. If you analyze what is perceived as large innovations, you will actually find that they were made up of a lot of small innovations along the way. How do we encourage the small innovations? Recently I’ve reviewed incremental improvement statements with my teams to get them thinking about small improvements. The small improvement statements I reviewed on my last project were:
- I will strive to be a better team member tomorrow than I am today
- I will strive to be a better [BA/PM/DBA/Developer] tomorrow than I am today
- I will strive to help to make the solution better tomorrow than it was today
- I will strive to help to make problems, issues, and risks less tomorrow than they were today
- I will strive to help to provide more value to the client tomorrow than they had today
- I will strive to help to create better processes tomorrow than we have today
These statements have helped the team focus on continuous improvement and innovation.
2) Build a team culture of safety and confidence
If you can build a culture where people feel safe in making suggestions or recommendations and where people are confident their ideas will be heard and truly considered, I firmly believe you will get more ideas and ultimately more innovation. I think frequently people limit the innovations they bring forward because they feel they might be blamed if the innovation has unintended consequences. (or they may be criticized for an incomplete idea) In addition, people want to be sure that the idea will be seriously considered if they are going to put the time in to develop the idea or innovation.
To accomplish this, I try to do two distinct things:
I) Abide by the Agile Prime Directive
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
–Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews
I absolutely love the Agile Prime Directive as it removes blame and us versus them thinking from the project. It sets the stage for people to feel comfortable in raising ideas and suggestions without the fear of initial criticism and blame somewhere down the road. It also places the onus on the individuals to hear their team mate’s ideas without being critical off the bat. It places the emphasis on “seek to understand” rather than “seek to find fault”.
II) Let the team innovate
This sounds like obvious common sense not worth mentioning. Let me explain. Many teams that have a perceived lack of innovation share the same structure. There are a few leaders that ‘approve’ the innovations that will be implemented and they expect their team members to submit their innovations for approval. This very structure stifles the innovative process. How can the few leaders at the top have the same wealth of ideas and domain knowledge as all the members of the team to evaluate what is a good innovation? Anytime there is an approval process, you can be sure there is not going to be much innovation.
“As a leader, you don’t need to be convinced or believe in every innovation, you just need to believe in your team.”
Many times, you may believe that the innovation may not work. But you again need to trust your team. Otherwise, the team will get a sense of what ideas you are likely to approve and only raise those ideas to your attention. And before you know it you are only getting one person’s idea of innovation from a team of many. And then in the Project Retrospective we will bemoan the lack of innovation.
The team doesn’t submit ideas or innovations for approval, they just inform as to what innovations or ideas they are currently implementing.
But won’t you have constant change? Yes and No. Yes, you will have a lot of change and change that you could not have foreseen. But isn’t that the point of innovation? But if you set expectation and the entire team has a shared vision of success and the ultimate solution, the team itself will determine when it can innovate and when it should not.
The team understands that the project still needs to live up to the client expectations, but how the team meets the expectations should be up to the team to decide. We need to manage by destination rather than by route. The team will determine the best route to take.
I have combined the small improvement statements and Agile Prime Directive into something I have termed the Team Member Manifesto on my recent team. So far the amount of ideas and innovations have been very high.