How to Build a Culture of Product Innovation in an Agile Development Cycle

Challenges driving product innovation in agile web development

Driving innovation in your product cycle is a particular challenge in agile web development environments for a few reasons.

  1. Heads down focus on work in progress: in a time boxed development cycle the focus is getting chunks of work out the door, not on whitespace thinking of how the product should work.
  2. Constant development: the time boxed cycle never stops. Whether your sprint is 2 weeks or 3, the cycle always restarts at the end. This makes it very easy to simply reboot the same exact heads down focus on that specific work within each sprint just to get the work in sprint delivered.
  3. Natural silos: Because there’s so much focus on your own scrum team delivering work, large agile web development organizations become naturally silo’ed as each team works on their own component.

Unless there is a focus on building innovation to solve these challenges it’s very easy for there to be sparse or no innovation occurring in the product cycle, and that is extremely dangerous for the long term success of any product.

How to drive innovation in your product life cycle

Much of what I’ve read about threading innovation into the agile product development cycle focuses on “time” as the main challenge. While “time” is definitely a major limiting factor I’ve seen most, it’s a red herring for what is actually required. Innovation is tough and it takes more work than just allowing a chunk of time to magically fill with “innovation”.

While we all like to think that we can come up with innovative ideas if we just had the time, coming up with the idea is only 10% of the process, if that. To take that idea through the definition process, envisioning, and to get validated learning to ensure that the idea is something that customers want. Innovation is not about coming up with an idea in the team and just putting it in market and moving on. It’s about coming up with an idea, outlining it, designing it, understanding how you expect it to work in market and testing that assumption and making a decision with the data resulting from the test. Often, the idea also requires working cross functionally with other teams to execute. It may also require other stakeholder buy in and leadership approval in some sense.

Because innovation is a lot more work than we give it credit for, we traditionally feel that the only thing keeping us from getting innovation into the cycle is a bit more time to do it. As if by having a few extra hours all of the challenges would somehow clear up. However, in order to really drive innovation a culture of innovation needs to be built and embraced by the teams.

Build a culture of innovation in your scrum teams

  1. Define the process: in addition to having more time there needs to be structure around how an idea is discovered collaboratively by the team, vetted and defined so it meets the definition of ready and then how it gets through the execution funnel by the relevant teams. Without this process the teams will not have a clear path to take their ideas to production and innovation will be stifled.
  2. Make clear objectives: clearly defined objectives are crucial for an innovation engine that works. Leadership needs to be extremely clear about the expectations of each team to deliver innovative ideas to completion. This can either be accomplished by having a separate team goaled with taking in and managing innovative ideas from the various teams. Or, each team can have a vertical goal in their development plans defining their responsibility to develop and execute a certain amount of innovation. If clear objectives aren’t outlined then the teams won’t feel like they have any directive to support and drive innovation in their day to day.
  3. Ensure team support: most innovative ideas will impact more than one scrum team. Because of this you will likely need to work across-scrum teams. In order to do this there needs to be clear team support for executing innovative ideas brought by other teams. This also goes back to “time” in the sense that enough time needs to be given by each team to innovation. Without team support innovation will die on the vine when one team can’t get their stories taken by other impacted teams.
  4. Strong leadership expectation: this one goes hand in hand with clear objectives. But it’s so critical it’s worth detailing as a separate item. Leadership needs to provide consistent and strong support that includes not just lip service, but also management and career development opportunities that oversees specific innovation initiatives and who are tasked with driving innovation. If it’s not structurally covered by leadership or the expectations aren’t being followed up in the appropriate way talented individuals will not work hard to push innovation through the funnel.

It’s really easy to get caught up in execution of the day to day product , especially in an agile environment. And while “time” is an important and necessary first step, there’s much more required to drive innovation throughput.

Read the full post on the Product Manager Club site, and check out tons more articles on product management strategy.

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