Wilson Fletcher

Is Agile making you less innovative?

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Yes. (I nearly stopped here.) We’ve written before about the challenges of innovation, from the consistent failure of internal innovation labs, to the lack of time dedicated to strategic thinking in modern organisations. The introduction of Agile methodologies has played a part in this and here's why we think so.

Agile may very well be a bigger constraint on substantial innovation efforts than it is an enabler of them. I’m aware that’s a provocative statement and that Agile advocates the world over will be throwing their arms in the air and lighting their torches – but we increasingly believe that Agile is making many established organisations less innovative, and they’re rarely yet putting two and two together.

Let’s back up a little before the horse heads start arriving in the mail. Agile methodologies have helped organisations all over the world get more done and, to this day, when applied correctly, can help any organisation bring a product to market – and keep it in market more successfully than they did before. As a methodology, Agile is a big step forward for many people from the waterfall days of old. For most product teams, adopting an Agile approach should be the default approach to delivery and in-market iteration of a product. It’s an excellent method.

The innovation-stifling problem emerges when – as has been all-too-common – Agile is introduced as a mindset more than a methodology. I’ve met numerous senior people from well-known organisations around the world who have made Agile the sole focus of their digital transformation efforts. In too many cases, ‘bringing the startup inside’ an established organisation has focused on implementing Agile (and in the interests of fairness, its bedfellow Lean) as the silver bullet to fix the incumbent innovation paralysis. I call this the ‘silver bullet mindset’: “by adopting method/service/technique X from elsewhere we can solve our problems without really changing much.”

The typical scenario goes something like this. Agile is introduced into the organisation. Getting stuff done improves almost immediately. Incremental feature development of products already in-market improves. New ideas are progressed into production quickly. Progress is being made.

Or so it seems. The reality for many is that this progress is something of an illusion. Certainly, many small steps are taken but how many can say that their relative competitive positioning has improved? How many can say that they have successfully taken new innovation initiatives to market that have had a meaningful impact on their business? How many, hand-on-heart, can say that they have taken big steps forward commercially at any point?

The answer, when you can get the same ‘silver-bullet’ people to give you an honest one, ranges between ‘not much’ and ‘a little’. Sure, there has been a ton of activity, but by any meaningful measure (like, say, profit from new sources) the progress has been minimal and sometimes negative in real terms. Innovation-driven growth – growth from new initiatives – remains a difficult objective.

Now I know there are many other factors involved. I’m not suggesting that Agile is to blame for the ills of the world’s lumbering corporates, but perhaps those who have introduced it as their saviour should take their share.

Ironically, Agile has made many organisations less, ahem, agile and innovative by imposing a strict method where once none existed. Stand-ups, scrums, sprint retrospectives and points haves brought a discipline to delivery that has made it more predictable. But that predictability has systematised things so much that some people are trusting it to solve everything thrown at it. There’s so much emphasis on ‘how?’ that the ‘why?’ is lost.

The silver bullet mindset that has been attached to Agile has distracted leaders from addressing the core challenges that their organisations face if they are to thrive in the digital age. It has lulled many into a false sense of security: because so much is being done, we are definitely progressing. Right?

We are already seeing some of our own clients moving away from Agile again in an effort to drive more innovation. That’s a remarkable state of affairs and I’d argue is the wrong reaction to the right problem: a lack of substantive progress.

Simply moving from Agile to something else will solve nothing. The problem lies elsewhere. My advice to any organisation is two-fold.

First, scrutinise your level of progress properly. Take a long hard look at how much meaningful progress you have made since you ‘implemented’ Agile (tip: look for real, hard business measures like revenue from new sources, or significant positive step-changes in market share) and decide whether the progress you’ve made is what you had targeted.

Next, whether you’re happy now or not, stop talking about Agile as ‘the solution’ and start allocating more time to strategic thinking and initiatives focused on stretching the organisation’s view of the future. Agile will help you get there, but it is never going to help you figure out where ‘there’ is, and an over-reliance on it may well be the reason you’re not giving the future the considered attention it deserves.

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Stand-ups, scrums, sprint retrospectives and points have brought a discipline to delivery that has made it more predictable. But that predictability has systematised things so much that some people are trusting it to solve everything thrown at it. There’s so much emphasis on ‘how?’ that the ‘why?’ is lost.