Agile Innovation?

An agile approach to innovation is intended to be flexible and dynamic, but it can also be flaky if we’re not careful.

Agile is one of those great cover words — like pivot — that allows us to hide our failings. Failure in innovation work, as I’ve written before, only comes from a failure to learn, not achievement. When we are genuinely innovating — doing something new to generate value, by design – we can never be certain what the outcome will be so how can we fail? Failure is something judged on an objective, measurable process or outcome.

Agile began as a manifesto to describe an approach to software development and has since been taken out of that context and placed into product, service, and organizational development contexts well beyond its original scope. The approach has been taken up by management consultants and organizations as a means to foster innovation and improve quality.

Agile is meant to reflect adaptive development, trial-as-you-go, flexible, and dynamic in your strategy, methods, and implementation. However, in practice, agile has lost much of what it originally promised largely because of its adoption into what might be called the certification industrial complex.

The problem is, as Tom Fishburne’s cartoon illustrates, is that agile is used as an excuse, not a lever, for change.

Agile as Performative Innovation Theatre

Part of the movement toward quality has been the rise of things like certifications, designations, and other performative aspects that are meant to signal that a person or organization knows how to do agile in practice. It’s a strange irony that a methodology that is meant to be flexible and dynamic has such rigid markers of ‘quality’. Just as with other approaches like Six Sigma and LEAN, agile has moved into a realm where the very nature of the thing its meant to do — in this case support innovation — is detracting us from that.

Furthermore, these markers of quality are completely made up. Does it not seem odd that we have methods aimed at creative, yet disciplined approaches to problem framing, exploration, development, testing, and management and yet use terms like ‘master’ or ‘black-belt‘ or other certifications and designations that seem at best arbitrary and at worst just silly? What is the evidence that agile – as practiced according to these specific methods — produces more, better, or robust innovations?

Management consultant John Seddon calls agile ‘the most dysfunctional management fad there is.’

Dave Snowden, another systems-focused consultant and educator, is more charitable and thinks the problems are less about agile itself, but how it has evolved. He argues its time to ‘re-wild’ agile. However, he also points harshly toward the ‘certification scams’, adding:

“The idea that you call yourself a master of anything having done a two-day course and having filled out a multiple-choice questionnaire using an open book exam over the following eight weeks without other adults present is a travesty.”

Regimenting Innovation, Ignoring Complexity

The desperation to codify and compartmentalize innovation into certifiable chunks, skills, and qualities holds people back from doing real innovation. While there are certainly methods, tools, mindsets, and discipline required to innovate, establishing these into rigid structures is not the way to go. Further, taking something that was born out of software development and applying it to human systems is enormously problematic.

Just as much of the design thinking ethos came from an environment that uses phrases like ‘move fast and break things‘ and is built by people from particular backgrounds for particular purposes — and those aren’t always translated into community betterment.

This approach also makes the mistake of presuming knowledge about the complexity of the problem domain. While much of software development is complicated, it lacks the complexity we see in human and social systems. The implementation of software and effects on the world are complex. What agile does is confuses the two in its approach to innovation. It’s not useless, but it’s use is highly constrained.

Agile and its relentless adherence to some kind of process (which is different depending on which certified method you choose) does little to ask questions about the nature or kind of problems it seeks to address and for what kind of values are needed to guide that problem-solving.

I’m not sure re-wilding agile will help. Like any tool or method it has its place and time and those times and places are limited.

That won’t stop people from using agile as cover for the failings we create because we didn’t bother creating or implementing a strategy that was designed for fit for purpose.

Be agile — in practice — not necessarily in theory.

There’s a lot of ways to innovate beyond and including agile. If you are interested in learning more about them, consider registering for the Cense Academy or contact us at Cense and we can help you.

Image used under license from Tom Fishburne.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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