The Oatmeal has a fantastic comic on the Backfire Effect that was so popular, they rewrote it with, um, cleaner language. It starts simply. “You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you.” And it goes on to talk about the emotional response that we sometimes have to people saying things that we just don’t want to hear.
I had that reaction when Dave Snowden said, “Agile manages out innovation.”
“What? Of course we don’t.” From anyone else I would have been a bit more defensive, but given Dave’s history of being right about things, I settled for just thinking he was probably wrong this time.
I thought it was just about the parallel probes.
When you’re dealing with truly complex problems, there’s no guarantee that any one experiment will work; so carrying out a bunch of them, all at the same time, is actually more useful than doing them sequentially. Complex, cultural problems aren’t physics; the landscape is going to change anyway, and eliminating side-effects isn’t as important as finding ones which happen to work in your favour.
Of course, most of us aren’t running experiments in parallel. We have one product we’re working on, and we’re iterating towards a final solution, knowing vaguely what we want to achieve and getting feedback along the way. It’s very rare that we don’t have some idea of what we ought to be doing.
Agile doesn’t actually prevent us from running parallel probes, though. I once worked in a mixed dev/coach role writing a new trading platform. It wasn’t entirely an Agile project. They’d brought in some UI designers before-hand, who had carefully researched, then created, the design of the UI they wanted. Back then I already knew that if it was new, it was likely to be full of discoveries, so I hard-coded it and got it in front of the traders, who hated it.
Of course, being not entirely an Agile project, our UI designers had gone on to pastures new, so we were left with the terrible position of having to let the developers come up with the design.
Three of us, independently, came up with something we thought might work. The traders quite liked two of the solutions (or at least, they talked about what was wrong with them rather than why they were wrong, which was much better), so we kept those and made them work together, iterating to fix everything. But we did work in parallel for a bit, and it fitted nicely into our Sprint.
I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something, though. Dave didn’t just say that we tend not to be innovative; he said we actively manage out innovation. It took me a while to work out what was wrong.
It’s our focus on customers that holds us back.
Stop. Hold on. What? How can that possibly be the wrong thing to do?
It’s such an important part of Agile that it’s right there in the first principle:
Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.– The Agile Manifesto
The Kanban body of knowledge isn’t any better, either; all the Lean principles from which it derives are also very customer-focused, with the value stream being measured from when the customer need is discovered to when value is realized.
But how could that possibly be the wrong thing to do?
The most innovative companies aren’t just satisfying their existing customers.
Amazon doesn’t just sell books. Google doesn’t just do search. Netflix doesn’t just stream content. John Menzies, once the darling newsagent of high streets, now does airport logistics. Nintendo once made playing cards. Even Toyota started as a loom manufacturer.
At smaller scales, huge number of inventions are no longer driven by their original intent. Kleenex was originally made to take off make-up. The Slinky was meant for stabilizing ship instruments. Microwaves were discovered while messing with radar. And a monk called Dom Pierre Perignon was once tasked with removing the unwanted fizz from the wine.
All of these have something in common: they repurposed something they already had.
This is exaptation; the re-use of things for purposes for which they were not designed or evolved.
A lot of these discoveries and inventions have happened by chance… but what if there was a way to deliberately cause this kind of innovation?
This is what Dave calls “Managing for Serendipity”.
I’m pretty new to the entire field, so worth looking for his material on it rather than trusting me. In basic terms, though, it means looking to repurpose what you already have, to satisfy new varieties of customers.
Cognitive Edge use Sensemaker surveys to look for patterns in customer need and existing technology, but even introducing different kinds of experts from outside of your core domain to what you do can help to generate new ideas (these are the “oblique” probes in your probe portfolio).
IBM repurposed sewing machine punch-card technology for use in computing. Amazon repurposed their back-end and sold it as a product; AWS. Edin Berliner repurposed Edison’s telephone message recorder and invented the music industry. So many inventions are there, waiting to be discovered… unless we fall into that “first-fit pattern-matching” trap, and focus only on the one customer we already have.
“Innovation” comes from the Latin “to introduce as new”. If you’re being truly innovative, it’s the customers that are new, too.