Charles Darwin said it quite well: “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Innovation, collaboration, and improvisation are indeed essential forces shaping all of business and all of modern life, and they’ve become vitally important for the individual, the organization, and indeed for all of society.

The significance and importance of all three and their close cousin, adaptation, leads us to some essential questions:

  • How well are you and your company prevailing in the current environment of accelerating change?
  • How well positioned are you and your company to benefit from the countless new opportunities that change is bringing?
  • Does your organization have a rigorous innovation process?
  • Are you sufficiently agile to survive, and to succeed?

These questions matter so much because the scope of the challenges that every organization faces today is nothing less than enormous. Threats are everywhere, technology is accelerating, and success clearly belongs only to those rare organizations that have the capacity not only to adapt to change, but to thrive on it, and indeed to create it.

How do they do that?

The great companies disrupt industries by reshaping entire market ecosystems. The market is forced to adapt to them.

Perhaps your organization is among these exemplars?

Mastery of Innovation

The art and science of creating change is really the mastery of innovation, but innovation takes many forms: new products and services that turn customers into evangelists, new sales channels that dominate markets and confound competitors, accelerated product development timeframes that amaze and delight customers, investors and stakeholders, novel technologies that inspire wonder.

Given the accelerating rate of change there really is no other option but innovation.

Agile Innovation asks, How can these outputs be achieved not just once, but consistently?

Our answer, and the essential argument of this book, can be summarized in this way:

The market is becoming brutally competitive. It is much like a war, and to survive your organization must become proficient in innovation, which of course could become one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal. In fact, given the accelerating rate of change there really is no other option but innovation.

What is required, then, to master innovation and to become an agile, adaptive, winning organization?

  • First, design the right business processes that enable you to out-innovate your competition, combining quality and speed.
  • Second, reduce the inherent risks in innovation, while making the right investment decisions in new ideas.
  • Third, generate ideas that are better than everyone else’s by effectively engaging a larger group of people – the entire organization as well as its broader ecosystem – as effective co-ideators.
  • And fourth, develop and demonstrate exceptional leadership skills, because making this all happen will probably require that you provoke and lead a genuine revolution in how your organization operates.

These principles constitute Agile Innovation, which is a blend of great advances in technology development (Agile Software Development) together with the leading-edge practices and principles of innovation management.

How easy to do is all this?

Well, it may not be so easy at all, and it’s probably going to a big challenge. But it is definitely achievable, and the rewards from doing so will be great.

And anyway, what’s your next best alternative to innovation? Or is there even any alternative? Probably not …

Why Don’t Large Firms Innovate?

Large organizations, by their very nature, have difficulty embracing a culture of continuous innovation, and they also struggle to adopt the necessary practices. But this is neither necessary nor inevitable. The belief has to be changed, or there are going to be a lot of unpleasant consequences.

Many of the root causes that prevent large firms from innovating are related to the challenges inherent in managing a large enterprise: the need for coordination, scale, efficiency, and sustained profitability in a brutally competitive, global marketplace, and an equally brutal securities market.

Further, the modern corporation is typically built on structures, rules, and processes that may also inadvertently stifle innovation, or even kill it outright. Whether intentional or not, the premature mortality of ideas and innovations occurs on a regular basis. The logic behind suppressing innovation may even make sense, in a limited, short-term context, such as when senior executives try to exercise control over unwieldy organizations so that critical objectives can be achieved.

In so doing, however, they often sacrifice important long-term benefits. Hence, one of our goals in this book is to show how short-term objectives and long-term needs can be balanced, and how operations units and innovation teams can work in close and effective partnerships rather than as bitter rivals that compete for resources.

Technology firms, like all businesses, struggle with the challenge to balance short and long term, to balance operational imperatives with the need to create new products and services and methods, but one set of principles that technologists have developed that seem to be ahead of the rest are the methods widely known as “Agile.”

Agile refers to a set of principles and practices that have been developed by software programming teams with two major goals: to accelerate their work, and to reliably produce work of the highest quality. By reducing the burdens of bureaucratic project management, they also freed programmers to work more productively and with much greater satisfaction. This effort has been amazingly successful, and a robust methodology has emerged since The Manifesto for Agile Software Development was published in the spring of 2001.

How are Agile and classical innovation management related? One way to think of it is like this – Agile is a speedometer so that by knowing your speed you can calculate when you’ll reach your destination. Without a speedometer or odometer, you’d have to guess, and the longer and less familiar the route, the worse your prediction is going to be. Without reliable measurement, you can only guess.

Agile Innovation, in complement to your Agile speedometer, is the GPS that helps you stay on course. Even without plotting your course in detail ahead of time – or developing “comprehensive documentation and specification,” you can get started right away, and if you make a wrong turn or hit a traffic jam your Agile Innovation GPS makes a course correction, so whether the journey is ten miles or ten thousand, you always know your estimated arrival.

David vs Goliath

Many practitioners and advocates of Agile tend to see themselves as Davids, small, lean, and determined, standing toe-to-toe on the battlefield and fighting an enormous bureaucracy of Goliaths, whose sole function is to suppress their creativity, innovativeness, productivity, and even the joy they find in their work.

In this respect, the Agile movement reflects a profoundly important and meaningful inner drive.

Consequently, in much of the Agile literature there is an undertone of rebellion, and determination to defend the capacity of programmers to self-organize because they love their work and are fully committed to performing to the utmost of their abilities. In this respect, the Agile movement reflects a profoundly important and meaningful inner drive.

Inner motivation is well known as the roots that lie behind great works of genius, while external motivation based on reward and punishment can achieve, even at its at best, only compliance.

This burning desire to achieve greatness is reflected in the creation of Agile, and this principle of inner drive is also a key premise of our work. By extending this same energy, the same drive, beyond a group of programmers or an R&D team to other parts of an organization, tremendous value can be created and captured.

And while our passion is to direct this marvelous innate creative force specifically toward “innovation,” the same concepts and principles can be applied in a great many aspects of your organization.

What is the story of Agile Innovation?

The shift we are proposing is from traditional, top-down, control-oriented management, to self-organizing, customer-driven, Agile Innovation. This is, of course, nothing less than a revolution, the revolution that is referred to in the title of this book.

Agile Innovation entails a new way of working, and the powerful forces that are driving the economy and society will most likely require your organization to engage in this type of revolution sooner (better for you), or later (procrastinating will come with lots of adverse consequences).

Specific work processes related to project management and work team management are needed to create change and empower innovation throughout your own organization, and there are also some critical factors related to the leadership of your organization’s revolution, enabling you to put your plans into action.

By Langdon Morris, Moses Ma, and Po Chi Wu, PhD

Agile InnovationArticle series

Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity

→ Part 1: What is the story of Agile Innovation?
Part 2: Starting at Sprint Zero: A better way to innovate
Part 3: The Secret Sauce of Innovation
Part 4: Becoming Agile Rapidly and Painlessly
Part 5: Adaptability and Collaboration for Sustainable Business Growth
Part 6: Transforming How We Work
Part 7: Transforming Execution: From Assumptions to Evidence
Part 8: The Eight Cs of Transformational Change

About the author:

Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.