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How Agile Kills Innovation

November 14, 2019

As an agile agency, you may be wondering to yourself, “why is Crema writing an article titled how agile kills innovation!?” Our intention is not to paint a negative image of the methodology: in fact, quite the opposite. We still firmly believe in the effectuality of the agile approach for digital product development, but want to explore how the continual drive to innovate may have undesirable impacts on the best way to build products - so keep on reading!


Is innovation always a good thing?

Innovation has become a major buzzword in product culture and the tech industry. The most innovative companies or teams are the best, right? Well, maybe not. Let’s take a look at innovation in its modern meaning. According to Webster dictionary, it means "a new idea, creative thoughts, or new imaginations in form of device or method."


By this definition, innovation is indeed a necessary component of any successful product, but, in different ways than the initial perception of the word. Creative thoughts and new ideas at face value are wonderful things! But is innovation always a good thing?


In the context of product development, initial innovation doesn’t always live throughout the lifespan of a product. There has to be some sort of a “firmed up” idea that can be used as the foundation for the team to stand on. The creativity and innovation a team has throughout the product process only builds on that groundwork.


Agile does kill innovation, but not the “good kind”

Before diving in deeper, let’s quickly review the agile manifesto, which sets us up with specific ways of thinking around the software creation process. Its core components are focused around the following:

  • People before process.
  • Having software that works.
  • Having software that is built around the idea of understanding and responding to customer needs.


In order to achieve these goals and get the team on track to building the right software that fulfills the customers' needs, agile purposefully sets constraints to guide the team forward. So yes, agile does kill innovation, but not the good kind. Agile only cuts out the unnecessary noise to allow product practitioners to focus on what’s important.


While constraint might not always be comfortable, it’s an important part of the product process. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if you find that agile stifles your ability to innovate freely, then your concept of innovation when it comes to product might need to be reexamined.


Agile can kill positive innovation… if you don’t do it right

As with any other product approach out there, agile can be misapplied, which will inevitably lead to unintended negative consequences. One of the most common mistakes made by product managers is not allowing team members to be experts in their craft. Micro-management is a great way to stifle the kind of innovation that could lead to major breakthroughs for your product.


It’s undeniable that you’re going to run into challenges (and likely, you’ll run into many). As a product manager, ask yourself how your team is responding to those challenges. Agile is not just about the ability to create change (innovation), but also how to respond to it.


Here are some simple examples of ways we can see innovation practiced:


If your users are struggling to adapt to a new UI, talk with your design team. Ask questions like, “how can we be innovative in solving this problem?” From there, you can conduct research on other comparable approaches, or incorporate ideas or concepts that are completely new. Implement your ideas, iterate as needed, and test again!


If your development team reviews a design and feels like it might blow scope, it’s time to talk through the options with your development team. Ask questions like, “how can we be innovative to solve the design need, but challenge ourselves to maintain the scope?” Encourage your developers to collaborate with designers to find a middle-ground solution - maybe there’s a simple solution such as utilizing open-source tools/assets, that can be a faster, easier mode of implementation.


This is product innovation. Focused, and serving a purpose without totally breaking the wheel.


Let innovation live while sticking to agile

It’s all about striking a balance between allowing new ideas to thrive and limiting excessive innovation that may cause the team to lose sight of the users' needs. At a certain point, you need to actually act on the idea you’ve chosen and begin strategizing a solid plan to execute. If you’re looking for more ways to be innovative, get crafty with your resources (team, time, money, etc). Dreaming up new ways of doing things isn’t the only way to get creative.


Share with us your perspective on innovation within the product process in the comments here. Whether you agree or disagree, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading!