Agile teams need room to try out new ideas and different ways of doing things. To do well, they have to figure out new ways to solve tough problems.
I think it’s great that most teams using Agile methods like Scrum work in two-week cycles. But as we’ve started doing even shorter cycles, it seems like we’ve lost something important. It feels like we don’t have as much freedom to try out new ideas as often as we used to. It’s like we don’t have time for innovation anymore.
Some companies have tried to fix this by setting aside special time or having a team just for innovation. But the thing is, trying new things shouldn’t be something we only do on special occasions. It should be part of how every team solves problems.
Agile Innovation and Sprint Duration
To illustrate, let’s consider a scenario with a team that has recently adopted Scrum. In the early days of Scrum, many teams used to plan sprints that lasted four weeks or one month. Now, picture this team during sprint planning for an upcoming cycle, facing a decision between two approaches to achieve a goal.
The first approach is the one they know well, a tried-and-tested method they are confident will succeed.
The second approach is potentially more effective, but it’s unproven and carries some risk.
Opting for the experimental approach may or may not yield the desired results. It involves some risk, but with a four-week sprint, it’s a risk that feels manageable. If the experiment doesn’t work, the team will have invested some time, but they still have ample time to switch back to the tried-and-true method and meet their goal by the end of the sprint.
In those early days of Scrum, teams often leaned toward exploring innovative solutions because they had the luxury of time. They felt secure in doing so because they knew that the experiment would likely take only three or four days. They were aware that, with four weeks at their disposal, they had sufficient leeway to recover and revert to the safer approach if needed.
However, this dynamic changes with shorter sprints. In a shorter sprint, if a team attempts a creative solution that doesn’t pan out, it could mean they struggle to fulfill their sprint commitment.
Agile Innovation and Problem-Solving Proficiency
But is failing to meet the sprint commitment really a disaster? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe that teams consistently meeting their sprint commitments might not be pushing themselves enough. They might not be exploring new ways to address “how” to deliver the product their product owner has requested.
Unfortunately, I’ve observed a concerning trend in today’s Scrum practices where many organizations have turned sprints into mere checklists.
If you did, congratulations, your team is considered successful. If not, it’s seen as a failure.
This View of Success Is Inherently Problematic
I agree that a team should ideally finish what they’ve planned most of the time. Consistency and predictability are crucial, as they enable others to rely on estimates and make informed plans. However, the expectation should not be to deliver everything every time.
Approximately 20% of the time, a team that is stretching its boundaries and trying new things may fall short of completing all planned tasks. A team committed to continuous innovation and learning won’t achieve 100% completion every time. And that’s not just acceptable; it’s actually desirable.
Without a focus on Agile innovation, teams can become stagnant. Teams that solely prioritize task completion become reactive rather than responsive. They stop seeking new solutions and learning to address problems effectively and instead become task executors.
Exploring Experimentation and the Importance of Psychological Safety in Agile
The unintended consequences of shorter sprints and rigid sprint commitments can have a detrimental impact on creativity and breakthroughs. When teams feel rushed or fear the consequences of failure, they are less likely to feel comfortable experimenting. Without a sense of psychological safety, innovation takes a backseat.
It’s of utmost importance for agile teams to resist the pressure to always meet sprint commitments and never experience setbacks.
A recent Harvard Business Review article emphasized that the heart of agile isn’t technical or mechanical; it’s cultural. Similarly, Entrepreneur.com noted that a company should cultivate an innovation culture rather than relying solely on an innovation team. Becoming an innovative company isn’t achieved by hiring a few individuals to handle it while everyone else merely goes through the motions.
As advocates of agility, we must actively promote experimentation as an integral part of our corporate culture. Companies that prioritize innovation empower self-organizing teams to explore new ideas, foster continuous learning and improvement (with dedicated resources), actively seek and act upon feedback and suggestions, and place a strong emphasis on collaboration and communication.
Agile Innovation and the Art of Strategic Planning
Timing plays a crucial role in innovation. When strategizing a project, it’s essential to consider taking calculated risks early on rather than waiting until later. This concept aligns with the “fail fast” approach, which isn’t just about delivering rapidly but also about identifying potential failures early in the process, allowing for timely course correction.
During the initial phases of a project, it’s worthwhile to explore innovative approaches that might be unconventional and carry some uncertainty. Taking a chance on something new and untested is a calculated risk that can lead to breakthroughs.
The need for swift innovation is one of the key drivers behind organizations transitioning to Agile methodologies. It’s vital to create an environment where teams feel secure in experimenting both early and frequently. This way, you can fully leverage the innovation potential that agile offers without missing out on valuable opportunities.