Barriers to innovation: demystifying them with Agile?

Barriers to innovation: demystifying them with Agile?

Agility and innovation, from myth to reality (2/3)


This series of articles aims to shed light on the obvious yet complex link between Agility and innovation, and to suggest ways to structure it. Innovation is both attractive and intimidating. Where do the fears and reticence come from? How to get around them “Agilely” to integrate it into its projects? Innovation is as attractive as it is intimidating. Where do the fears and misgivings come from? How do you get around them “Agilely” and integrate them into your projects?

Brakes-on-innovation_scribing_ENWhen we talk about “innovation”, we immediately think big: a revolution that will break codes and overturn the established order. But are these beliefs, which restrain teams and managers alike, really true? And if so, how can the company demystify them?

In a previous article, we questioned the compatibility of Agile methods with the implementation of a continuous innovation process. We came to the conclusion that the lack of literature on the subject made it difficult for organizations to get started. What’s more, while SAFe© is the only one of the most widely-used methods to offer a framework conducive to innovation – easily transposable whatever Agile methodology is used – implementation often remains tricky. The well-known phrase “Be Agile rather than do Agile” comes into its own here.

This brings us to the question of the Agile mindset and the innovative mindset. At the dawn of a continuous innovation process, and before any reflection on its structuring, the Agilist must establish a diagnosis: are the teams and managers ready to undertake such a process? At Mews Partners, we are convinced that cultural change is more likely to succeed if it is carried out through an incremental application, listening to the challenges and reluctances.

This second article will attempt to demystify the four main beliefs that hinder the deployment of a continuous innovation approach. The challenge here is to assess the maturity of employees, both operational and managerial, when faced with such an approach, in order to identify the levers for acculturation that need to be put in place.


Myth 1: “Innovation is necessarily disruptive”.

As we saw in the previous article, although innovation takes many forms, the one that spontaneously springs to mind is disruptive innovation, i.e. innovation that generates a new use, creates a break in an existing market to the point of making it obsolete (or even creates a new market). Yet this type of innovation is as rare as it is complex and risky, whereas other forms exist that are far more common and simpler to implement. One example is incremental (or continuous) innovation, which aims to improve an existing product or service to make it better (in terms of performance or use) or cheaper. Or adjacent innovation, which aims to transpose a product or technology into a new market. These more accessible forms of innovation are no less a source of value.

Barriers to innovation_citation 1_ENHere, the company (or project team) has a duty to provide information and clarification, in order to dispel fears and preconceived ideas. Teams and their managers must be made aware of the plurality of innovation and aligned with the direction chosen by management. The aim is to define and communicate an innovation strategy, which will provide a framework for the entire process: What ambition do we set ourselves? What type of innovation is most in line with the company’s overall strategy? Are we looking to meet technical and commercial challenges that will have an impact on our product and service offering? Or are we looking to improve performance by overhauling internal operations? How much risk is the company prepared to take?

These questions will help teams and managers to better understand what the word “innovation” means for their company or project. We need to define a course, a clear vision shared by all, which will provide a framework conducive to creativity and legitimize the approach.


Myth 2: “Fun isn’t work”.

Barriers to innovation_citation 2_ENAgile methods lead us to rethink the way teams are managed, towards a radical change in mindset. Many organizations are turning to a more human and participative management style, guided by the new methods and professions that are emerging (Management 3.0, Non-Violent Communication, Collective Intelligence…). Companies are trying to put people back at the heart of their organization, by seeking to promote well-being in the workplace, a guarantee of motivation and productivity.

When you combine “innovation” with “new management methods”, you often end up with playful work sessions designed to stimulate the imagination and the ability to think differently. Some, who are comfortable with these approaches, will prove to be the driving force during the creative phases. Others, on the other hand, will be reluctant, judging that “having fun isn’t work” and that they “don’t have time to waste”. It’s a quick shortcut, which undermines the credibility of the approach: innovation is seen as a game rather than real work. But if some are hesitant at the start, they will be essential during the more pragmatic phases, especially when it comes to turning ideas into reality. The real challenge, then, is to bring together complementary profiles whose multi-disciplinarity and variety of personalities will contribute to a robust result at every stage of the innovation process.

We also tend to confuse innovation with creativity. By focusing on the “divergence”, ideation and creativity phase, the whole approach is undermined by the lack of concrete results. In reality, this fear of the blank page is fictitious: everyone has ideas. The difficulty lies in capturing them and transforming them.


Myth 3: “Innovation rarely materializes”.

The best-known way to materialize a continuous innovation process in an Agile framework is to set up Innovation & Planning Sprints (“Sprint IP”). As advocated by the SAFe© methodology, these particular iterations provide a window of opportunity to step back, continuously improve, innovate and prepare for future cycles. This principle of dedicated iteration can be applied regardless of the size of the team or the Agile method used. The recommended duration for this sprint is the standard iteration duration (2 weeks in SAFe©). Depending on the context, this may seem a short time in relation to all the activities to be carried out. What can we expect to achieve in terms of innovation within this timeframe? What will happen to these activities at the end of the IP Sprint? These are all questions that can make employees fear that the whole process will come to nothing. This would leave the impression of wasting time and energy on an isolated whim, leading to frustration and demotivation.

Defining an innovation strategy legitimizes the process (see Myth 1). It’s just as important to give it credibility. There’s no point in Innovation & Planning if the company isn’t structured to reap the benefits. The company (or project team) needs to secure a bridge between IP Sprints and team backlogs, so that the outcomes of the former can be assimilated into the reality of the latter. These are no longer two parallel cycles, but two integrated cycles that together contribute to the challenges of development.


Barriers to innovation_schema_EN

The IP Sprint, a bridge between the innovation backlog and the product backlog

Structuring the innovation phase along the lines of Agile development cycles, based on the “Prototype – Test – Collect feedback” model, will enable us to experiment with the results, whatever their maturity, and gather feedback from potential customers. Because innovation only counts once it has tested its market, it’s vital to put these new ideas to the test as quickly as possible (as advocated by innovation methods such as the Lean Startup through the notion of Minimum Viable Product – MVP). This will not only enable us to check that the product meets our needs, but also to keep our teams mobilized and motivated in this area. What’s more, this cycle encourages teams to spend time with customers and end-users, to better understand their needs and constraints: by putting embryonic ideas in their hands, they can observe their behavior and reactions, listen to their comments and put themselves in their shoes. In short, to showempathy, a key notion in methods such as Design Thinking, and so important in most companies, where teams are often far removed from their users.

Barriers to innovation_citation 3_ENThe other key element is learning. Eric Ries, who theorized the Lean Startup method, places this notion above the result itself: even if the innovation doesn’t reach its target, the team benefits in terms of learning. It becomes more immersed in customer (and/or user) needs and feelings, gains a better understanding of its value proposition, and develops (or maintains) an open-mindedness and ability to think “out of the box” that will one day enable it to transform the trial. It gives itself the right to fail, not only to learn, but also to stumble in order to pivot. Here again, the challenge is to create a framework in which this right is not only accepted but also valued, which requires a significant cultural change. The aim is to limit the scope of a potential failure by shortening experimentation loops as much as possible: few resources invested, so little impact if the experiment goes no further. We speak of Fail Fast: minimizing investment while maximizing the lessons learned.


Myth 4: “It’s difficult to implement an innovation approach”.

In the common imagination, structuring a continuous innovation process is akin to climbing Mont Blanc. A long and difficult ordeal, which will leave its mark, but which may well enable us to reach the summit and the satisfaction associated with it. What’s more, the literature is sparse, so organizations don’t know how to pack their hiking bags for such an adventure, and have no map to show them the way. In short, it’s often a blind start without an ice axe.
At Mews Partners, we recommend approaching innovation in the same way as the project: Agile! By experimenting “small” and “simple” (“Start small, think big”), it is possible to demonstrate the value of the approach, and it is therefore easier to anchor it in employees’ habits. This provides fertile ground for wider deployment.
So, before you set off to climb Mont Blanc, why not try your hand at a few of the Pyrenees’ iconic peaks?

Barriers to innovation_citation 4_ENRather than aiming for a “Big Bang” change, we favor an incremental approach with initial experimentation by a pioneering team. She will be selected on the basis of her open-mindedness, in order to focus on structuring and implementation before tackling cultural change.
This pilot case will enable us to demystify the three beliefs described above in the field, by applying simple, rapid solutions, and to demonstrate the realism of our approach through concrete results.

Far from defining a global innovation strategy within the company, the aim here is to define a clear framework and challenge to be explored within the allotted time. Experimentation will then focus on the use of collective intelligence methods to take advantage of the complementary nature of the profiles involved, and turn ideas into reality. Finally, a demonstration of the results will serve as a final review in front of the panel; a way of analyzing the concrete results of this experimentation, both in terms of content and form, but also of promoting the global approach by encouraging as many people as possible to take part.

The results of this study will serve as a showcase for the approach, helping to convince people of its usefulness and feasibility. On the basis of this initial feedback, decision-makers will be able to adjust their strategy and consider the idea of a wider implementation of the innovation approach.

Scale-up must never be neglected, or you risk failing to manage change and adapt your approach. At Mews Partners, we are convinced that any transformation must be carried out using an iterative approach. Our change management model is based on 4 key values that ensure its success: making sense, ensuring understanding, awakening desire and providing the means, with the central aim of involving the populations affected in a process of experimentation.

In this article, we propose Agile solutions to four of the obstacles to innovation that we observe repeatedly in the field. When it comes to cultural change, it’s vital to establish a diagnosis that identifies and demystifies the fears specific to your context, so that all stakeholders (management, managers and employees) feel confident and motivated about the proposed ambitions. Every company (or project team) will find here the first keys, easy to adapt and use, to set up a framework conducive to innovation. The challenge is to clarify, give credibility to and legitimize its approach, then test it before extending it. Structuring it on a larger scale will represent the final and consequent challenge, which we’ll address in the next article in this series.



Agile and innovation, the friend-foe (1/3)
– How do you take the plunge and structure Agile innovation? (3/3)


Share this post
Also discover