Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

An agile approach to innovation in a small company

I recently spent a little while thinking about an open, transparent and honest way to deal with innovation/staff objectives/supporting work in a small company. Note that this isn’t what my current employer does, just an idea for how these things can be done.

Firstly people need time to do this stuff, if it’s valuable for your organisation to spend time doing supporting work, intellectual property development or general innovation then they need the time to do it. People need the Google 20%. I’m very fortunate that in my job I get that time, or close to it normally.

New Ideas:

Create a wiki page or similar somewhere (that everyone can see and everyone can edit) – a bit like the Google ideas wall. Start it with a freeform/categorised ideas list in the form, this is a bit like a backlog, once an ideas done/delivered/published it drops off this list

Ideas – Owner – State:

Idea for doing something – Mike – Identified

Idea for taking over the world – Unassigned – Identified

If someone like one of these ideas they can run with it, recruit a team of colleagues if necessary and get on with it. Once I’ve asked someone to help with my idea I can be fairly sure they’ll ask for reciprocal help on something. This improves teaming in distributed companies and provides a channel for autonomous action, critical for motivation.

In Progress Ideas:

When ideas are in progress they’ll have their own tracking and information in the appropriate technology. For example a blog idea probably goes from being picked up to being published without any tracking. Maybe there’s a review process if it’s a big position piece so it might go through Identified to In Review on the list above but that’s it. Another idea might be for the development of some software, in which case it’ll take some time and probably have a project web and bunch of tools and info to communicate.

Complete bits of work:

Once something has been done the owner can add it to the achievements table, a column for each person where they can list what they’ve done with links to the various bits of output.

Person A Person B Person C
Blah Practice published Blog series on X
Paper published on Y

All bits of achievement aren’t the same size, but this allows people to see the creativity and production of their colleagues and find all of the useful things people have been doing. It also applies some peer pressure to Person C who on the face of it doesn’t appear to be adding much, although there could be a good reason for that.

Why did I say all this was agile?

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Individuals ideas are valued and encouraged, as are their achievements. People are encouraged to help each other and work together on ideas. There’s very little process and tooling involved, just a list on a wiki. If I had a co-located team I’d just use some whiteboard paint on a wall or some post-its.

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Well we’re not talking about software here, but achieving ideas. The emphasis is on the achievements table, not the detail of how people go there. In progress ideas can be tracked and reported using whatever info is relevant for the type of thing being done, which can be determined by the people doing it.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

This is an open and transparent process. Anyone can comment on the ideas on the list have a look at in progress ideas or question published/achieved goals.

Responding to change over following a plan

All this stuff is just written down, it would be easy to rewrite it if things changed. People, ideas, the environment etc. will all change so we need to be responsive to too and not plan the next 50 ideas to the hour.

Other thoughts

Since the list at the top is a bit like a backlog, it could be managed with input from management to direct the backlog, prioritise and agree. But I’d be wary of applying that kind of governance to creative/innovative ideas. I’m not proposing this as a general work management process, just an ideas/ancillary objectives process. Remember, bad management kills great ideas and worse this kind of management intervention stifles bad ideas, which are necessary and valuable.

Also, there are few things worse in life than an “Ideas Process”


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