The agile model for coding software rewards developers with more satisfying work and clients with more useful applications, sooner. Software developers who embrace agile principles face two challenges, however. We work globally: people cannot collocate. We source work by fiat: teams cannot gel to pursue challenges that engage them. In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores how people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation as a means to realize the promise that agile development offers.

The Digital Age does not relent. Its connectedness brings relentless complexity. Its pervasiveness brings relentless change. The level of complexity grows. The rate of change accelerates.

We look to the horizon. We see no end in sight.

This relentlessness disrupts organizations. Past practices fail to help us master current challenges. Past learning fails to offer us guidance. The Digital Age cuts the value of our expert intuition.

We find ourselves as a result in a fertile, fertile time for discerning anew what matters. What does it mean for us, living in relentless times, to work together to provide value and to produce profit?

The software development community grapples with this question—ironic, given their work prepares the ground in which the Digital Age takes root. In the past decade, developers have embraced the spirit of agile development to negotiate complexity and to maintain speed. Agile development opens, too, the possibility of working together in meaningful ways.

The agile development philosophy follows:

  • Individuals and interactions over process and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

Software developers practice the agile philosophy by working in person each day with their fellow developers and end users. They deliver working code sooner rather than later and more often rather than less often. They believe that each member of the team who decides to work on the code can reach the best, shared understanding of how to do the work and, with the end user, what constitutes value for client.

People who want to learn more about agile development will enjoy Agile Software Development by Robert C. Martin.

Negotiating Reality

Many of my clients embrace agile development to code software in the Digital Age. They answer the complexity that the Digital Age brings with trust: trust that self-selected, self-motivated people negotiate their way forward as a team. They answer the rapid change that the Digital Age brings with collaboration: tightly knit, self-formed teams make the most meaningful progress.

My clients, too, face reality—two realities, in particular…

  • Their organizations site offices around the world. Clients live in 100 countries. They wrestle with agile’s principle to collocate.
  • Their organizations as a whole do not embrace agile philosophy. The organization resources projects by requisitioning people, for example. They wrestle with creating an environment where teams, unburdened by bureaucracy, can form around the work.

Enter Collaborative Innovation

The practice of collaborative innovation shares the agile development philosophy. People who practice collaborative innovation value first the gifts that their fellow community members bring to the table. They see the practice as a way for people to work to their potential. In doing so, they help the organization realize its charter in compelling ways. Collaborative innovation works to the extent that people engage one another in productive ways.

People who practice collaborative innovation value enquiry. What question, were we to pursue it fully together, would lead to breakthroughs? How might we resolve a critical question facing the community?

In agile development, the coder and the end user explore the possibilities of resolving the critical question through working software prototypes. In collaborative innovation, practitioners explore the possibilities of resolving the critical question through the ideas and concepts contributed in response.

To this end, people who embrace agile development may benefit by adopting the practice of collaborative innovation to help them navigate the two realities cited above. I explore one scenario below: the Azucar Hotel Company.

The Azucar Hotel Company

Imagine that you live in Miami. You code software for the Azucar Hotel Company. The Azucar Hotel Company owns and operates 50 country inns along the Atlantic coast of South America. Other developers live in Buenos Aires and in Cartagena, the headquarters.

The senior vice president of guest relations, Nina Sanchez, wants to create a mobile application. Visitors can use the app to reserve lodging, schedule riding lessons on the beach, or request that the inn’s kitchen deliver a refreshing cup of yerba mate to their room. ¡Que bueno! Opportunities to differentiate the hotel by mobile service seem limitless. Azucar’s hotel managers and customer advisory board of travel agents share her enthusiasm.

Nina appreciates, too, that the U.S. chains have rediscovered South America. Azucar competes with global companies for the global tourist trade.

Nina and you enjoy a good rapport. She calls you. You decide to launch the Azuczar Movíl development initiative. Nina supports the agile philosophy. She wants Azucar to launch new services quickly to stay ahead of the larger chains. Agile teams deploy software rapidly. Figure 1 depicts the scenario.

Figure 1: the scenario for the Azucar Movíl initiative

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Negotiating Azucar’s Reality

You base Azucar Movíl in Cartagena. To kick off the initiative and to engage the stakeholders, Nina and you sponsor a collaborative innovation challenge. You ask the Azucar developers, hotel managers, and advisory board members the following:

What hotel services, were we to offer them to guests on their smart phones, would maximize the enjoyment of their stay with us?

The community contributes hundreds of compelling ideas. The quality of their contributions reminds you why Azucar has thrived for decades. Nina and you observe that the ideas that the community has crowd sourced fall into three broad categories: reservation services, poolside services, and beach services.

As a result you create three Azucar Movíl innovation communities: las reservaciones, las piscinas, and las playas. You invite the people who contributed the top crowd sourced ideas in each area to take their ideas to concept: to prototype them.

The people need no further encouragement. Small groups of developers, hotel managers, and agents fly into Cartagena to begin working together. You find that, after a couple days of working together, they have begun hosting “la hora azul.” Each afternoon the groups convene poolside at the Cartagena property to share their prototypes. They gain one another’s perspectives. They ensure that the Azucar Movíl deliverables appear as a consistent whole to the hotel guests in the context of the app.

After two weeks, half the agile participants inform you that they must return to their properties. High season approaches. They must prepare.

The leaders of the las reservaciones, las piscinas, and las playas teams observe that they value the enquiry based approach that defines the practice of collaborative innovation. You explore whether you can apply this approach so as to minimize the loss of engagement that comes from working remotely.

After engaging in dialogue with their teams, the leaders decide that they will release a working prototype each week. They will also ask the larger community—both those working in person in Cartagena and those working at the hotels—the following, critical question with each version they release.

How might we increase the likelihood that guests choose a Hotel Azucar property through their experience with the mobile reservation service?

How might we increase the likelihood that guests choose a Hotel Azucar property through their experience with the mobile poolside service?

How might we increase the likelihood that guests choose a Hotel Azucar property through their experience with the mobile beachfront service?

Ideas that the community contributes will guide development for the following two weeks. The community anticipates working in this fashion for the next two months. They will then launch the first version of the app at the start of high season.

El Buen Tiempo Para Todos

Nina stands amazed at how rapidly Azucar Movíl has advanced. Historically, Azucar Hotel Company has struggled with speed, given they must effect change across a continent. Nina finds, too, that she can reduce the time and budget she allocated for training the hotel staff to respond to mobile service requests. The hotel staff, with their firsthand knowledge of what guests value, have contributed the most compelling ideas which the developers now prototype weekly. The company has identified several waiters who, based on the quality of their ideas, show promise to become property managers.

Lastly, Nina finds that advance bookings from her travel agent advisory boards have increased 12%. Engaging them in collaborative innovation and co-creation has strengthened their ties to and advocacy of the Azucar Hotel Company. These benefits in year one of Azucar Movíl have covered the costs of convening the agile team in Cartagena to begin work. She wonders about extending the external form of collaborative innovation to the guests themselves in year two (figure 2).

Figure 2: weaving collaborative innovation with agile development at the Azucar Hotel Company

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By Doug Collins

About the author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.