Hey there! Are you on an agile team that seems to be going through the motions of sprints and Scrum ceremonies without making much progress? Does it feel like you’re trapped on a hamster wheel, churning out features without considering better ways to solve problems? Well, you’re not alone.
Many agile teams struggle to balance innovation with their sprint commitments. But innovation is a key part of agile methodology. Finding time for experimentation and new approaches prevents stagnation and fuels continuous improvement. So how can your team start making time for innovation? Read on for tips on overcoming barriers, building psychological safety, and measuring innovation. With some thoughtful planning, your team can bring creativity back into focus.
Why Innovation Matters in Agile
Let’s start by talking about why innovation aligns so well with agile values. Words like “inspect”, “adapt”, and “improve” are baked right into the Agile Manifesto. This means that agile teams are encouraged to constantly reflect on how to tweak and enhance their processes.
Innovation goes hand-in-hand with the agile emphasis on responding to change. As business needs shift, teams have to get creative about how they solve problems. Finding innovative solutions prevents teams from becoming reactive and simply executing a predetermined plan.
Innovation also taps into the collective wisdom of the team. By fostering an environment where new ideas can surface, you harness the creative problem-solving abilities of everyone on the team. This prevents stagnation and the sense that you’re just showing up day after day to grind through a sprint checklist.
So in summary, innovation:
- Fuels creativity and finding new approaches
- Keeps teams responsive and nimble
- Leverages the team’s collective intelligence
Without it, an agile team’s progress will plateau quickly.
Barriers to Innovation in Agile Teams
If innovation is so aligned to agile values, why do so many teams struggle to prioritize it? What holds them back from carving out time for new ideas? Here are some common barriers to innovation in agile teams:
Short Sprints and Commitments
Two-week sprints with committed deliverables can make teams risk-averse. If an experiment doesn’t pan out, it threatens the chance to meet the sprint goal. The shorter timeline gives less room for course correcting.
Fear of Failure
When teams feel pressured to deliver against sprint commitments, they are less likely to try innovations that might not work. The fear of failure suppresses experimentation.
Lack of Psychological Safety
Without a safe environment that encourages speaking up, team members may stay silent about their ideas rather than risk judgment or rejection.
All About Velocity
A relentless focus on velocity metrics can cause teams to avoid anything that might slow them down, including research and experiments.
No Time Dedicated to Innovation
When innovation is always relegated to nights and weekends, it won’t get the attention and effort needed to bear fruit.
As you can see, even though innovation aligns with agile values on paper, the day-to-day realities of sprints can discourage it. So what steps can teams take to override these barriers?
Making Time for Innovation
To overcome obstacles to innovation, agile teams have to get intentional about finding time for it. Here are some tactics to build space for innovation into the sprint cadence:
Schedule Innovation Spikes
Dedicate a percentage of each sprint to an “innovation spike” – a time-boxed period for experimentation or research. Treat this spike as sacrosanct, not to be sacrificed if sprint work runs over.
“We allocate the first two days of each sprint to an innovation spike. This sets the tone that experimentation is part of our DNA.”
Block off periodic sprints focused solely on innovation work. Take a break from sprint commitments to explore new directions. Use these sprints to validate assumptions and ideas.
“Every quarter we have a one week innovation sprint to focus on our next big initiative.”
Budget Innovation Time
When planning capacity for a sprint, purposely allocate 20% of time for innovation-related tasks like research, ideation, and prototyping.
“We assume that 20% of each person’s capacity is reserved for innovation work – no exceptions.”
Do Risky Work Early
When tackling larger initiatives, schedule potentially risky R&D tasks in early sprints before making major commitments. Don’t leave big unknowns until the final sprint.
“We always work on the riskiest architectural components upfront. This prevents nasty surprises down the line.”
Leverage the sprint retrospective to generate new ideas. Retros are the perfect venue to brainstorm innovations in a judgment-free setting.
Assign Innovation Metrics
Along with standard velocity tracking, assign metrics related to innovation. For example, measure how many ideas were generated, prototypes developed, and experiments run.
As you can see, by intentionally scheduling time for innovation into the cadence of sprints, teams can overcome the tendency to default to execution mode.
Building a Culture of Psychological Safety
Of course, setting aside time is only part of the equation. For people to actually put that time to good use generating and sharing ideas, the work environment also needs psychological safety.
When team members feel safe to voice opinions without fear of embarrassment or retaliation, it unlocks creativity. People become comfortable presenting ideas and engaging in healthy debate.
So how can leaders build psychological safety on their teams? Here are some tips:
- Encourage appropriate risk-taking by not punishing failure harshly
- Celebrate learnings, even if the outcome was not successful
- Actively solicit ideas and feedback from the full team
- Allow time for open discussion and debate about options
- Be transparent about goals, constraints, risks and tradeoffs
- Listen attentively and don’t shut down ideas prematurely
“On our team, we have a “no judgment” rule during brainstorming. This allows people to toss out their ideas without worrying about criticism.”
By fostering psychological safety through behaviors like this, leaders empower innovation to emerge from the full team.
Measuring Innovation and Learning
As the saying goes, “what gets measured gets managed.” So don’t just pay lip service to innovation – back it up by actually measuring it!
Here are some metrics that can reveal how successfully teams are adopting an innovation mindset:
- Number of ideas suggested and number prototyped
- Results of experiments and iterations on prototypes
- Adoption rates of new tools, technologies and processes
- Cycle time from proposing an idea to implementing it
- Survey feedback on innovation climate
- Assessment of team confidence in sharing ideas
“We track how many hypotheses get formulated and tested. This motivates us to turn more ideas into action.”
By quantifying innovation and learning, teams can continuously improve how they translate new thinking into positive outcomes.
Key Roles in Fostering Innovation
Making space for innovation takes a village. While everyone has a role to play, some key stakeholders carry more responsibility. Let’s look at how they can lead the charge:
The Product Owner
- Gather innovative ideas from the team and stakeholders
- Prioritize innovation-related efforts on the product backlog
- Define problems in ways that stimulate creative thinking
The Scrum Master
- Coach team on integrating innovation into sprints
- Remove organizational barriers to exploring new ideas
- Facilitate retrospectives and other idea-sharing forums
- Challenge assumptions and suggest improvements
- Dedicate focus to research spikes and experiments
- Contribute ideas and give thoughtful feedback on others’ ideas
- Allocate budget for innovation efforts
- Advocate for assigning time for experiments
- Celebrate innovation milestones and achievements
With all of these players working in concert, innovation becomes a sustainable team behavior rather than a one-off event.
The sprint cadence of agile can sometimes seem at odds with making time for innovation. But carving out space for creativity and experimentation prevents stagnation. It recharges teams and reconnects them to the agile values of inspecting, adapting and learning.
As an agile practitioner, how can you help your team make time for innovation? Here are some key takeaways:
- Make innovation an intentional recurrent event, not an occasional one-off.
- Balance innovation time with sprint commitments through tactics like research spikes and dedicated capacity.
- Promote psychological safety so people feel comfortable surfacing and debating ideas.
- Measure innovation quantitatively, not just qualitatively, to drive improvement.
- Get leadership support to allocate resources towards experimentation.
- Make sure innovation efforts tackle meaningful business problems, not just technical ideas.
By keeping these principles in mind, your team can regularly inject new thinking into its approach. Enjoy the energy this brings! Innovation and agility are powerful partners in driving continuous improvement.
So get out there and start making time for big ideas. Your team’s future is counting on it!