Being a consultant for the better part of my 20-year career so far has given me insight into a wide variety of industries and organisations. And I’m not alone. At DevFacto we’ve worked on hundreds of projects over the years and brought a variety of people and perspectives to bear on whatever problems people put in front of us. It is often these varied perspectives that provide the insight or spark needed to find impactful solutions.
As we get more focused on innovation and all the ways that we can practise and improve, we started looking at what works and asking why. What works all the time? What works sometimes, and not others? Why? Certainly, we manage a fair amount of complexity in-house, as project teams spin up and spin down on various engagements we can observe teams of different sizes, composed of divergent skill sets. They take on work at many different stages and work to deliver it with different teams and customers every week. We always have something to learn and improve on internally as our teams deliver their work.
But we can also learn from what we observe on the customer side of our engagements, and that’s what I want to share today.
The first thing to understand if you’ve been struggling to push innovation in your organisation is that you’re not alone. Generating and executing on innovative ideas is complicated and difficult, which means there are many ways to fail along the way. It’s very common to see companies struggle with this.
Another observation we can share is that we see the same barriers over and over again. Many of them stem from a few common places. For example, a lack of understanding can be seen in groups struggling to find opportunities. Teams that lack knowledge might not understand how to explore, evaluate, or execute their ideas. Companies that lack resources might not have a broad enough variety of skill sets in-house, or support from leadership to chase ideas and take on risks.
The easiest issues to spot and solve are the things you can tangibly point to. Lacking money or time are easily identified barriers and can seem like impossible roadblocks to clear. Money can be very situational and quite complex depending on the organisation, but often a proper business case presented to the right person is all that is needed. Time is an interesting problem, in that embracing innovation sometimes means teams require more time to explore, assess, build, and test. But we’ve also seen approaches to innovation that actually save time, by focusing on only the most critical pieces and ignoring or deferring the rest.
Harder issues come from human dynamics. These are often layered, multi-faceted, and hard to unravel. It also means they take longer to work out. We often look at this through the lens of culture. Some organisations just need the right start, and they’re off and running. They already collaborate well, they value more than just speed, and they have a culture built on trust. Leadership is supportive and will create a safe space and time for people to work. People are neither too combative nor too friendly, which leads to more ideas being shared and considered. Innovation doesn’t require consensus (in fact, consensus can be a barrier to innovation because ideas generated are too similar, or nobody will ever agree on anything to move forward), but it does depend on alignment. Many people from various angles should be able to see the merit of the ideas in play, enough that they all want to work towards a shared goal.
Identifying a shared goal is critical. I’ve seen far too many teams over the years be unable to articulate their goal, or share a goal that has no ambition whatsoever. As I wrote in my post “What Is Innovation”, Innovation has to make an impact, and if there is no stretch or risk involved you might deliver an outcome but it is unlikely to provide much impact. An effective way around this problem is to identify an ideal state for your work and ask your team to push themselves as they align on it. There isn’t a lot of ambiguity in the word ideal, but there are millions of technical teams every day rushing to deliver on very mundane goals.
These teams are often focused on production (we delivered everything on time!) or speed (check out our sprint velocity!) and while good teams must care about those things, great teams know that the impact of the thing they deliver is monumentally more important. This is driven by the culture of your organisation. Regardless of what your mission, vision, and values say, what you measure and report on is what you end up with. In a very short time, nobody will care what your team's burn rate was, but they’ll definitely care about the outcome of your work. The customer reviews will be clear, and the support costs of a bad product speak for themselves even while these cultural flaws allow teams to hide behind good metrics.
Being able to measure your impact is critical to releasing, learning, and improving for the next release. But that only happens when your metrics are focused on the right thing. What was the ideal state you set out to build? Does this release get you closer to that? Do the metrics you’re tracking help you close the gap? If not, you have some hard questions to ask yourself and your team.
Related to measurement, is scale. A lot of people assume that innovation has to be world-changingly big, but even if your end goal is mammoth the best approach is likely broken down into incremental steps.
Most of these initiatives are in the hands of teams running design thinking methods on top of the agile process, both of which thrive on smaller releases and consistent feedback.
Are you focused on the right things to both find opportunities to innovate and then execute on them? Targeting incremental innovation every release will allow you to measure, which enables refinement, as well as course correction on the way to that big-picture vision.
We’ve learned over the last decade that good processes are a great way to break down these barriers. We have built processes over the years to solve specific problems but started to struggle when we began sequencing them together. In some cases, a specific process was simply too rigid to handle the larger sequences of work in a valuable way. In others, we struggled to tie purpose-built processes together because the outputs of one might not tie in nicely to the inputs of another. We had a durable need to compose strategies across a wide variety of projects, so we can handle anything a customer might bring our way. We had to find a way to consistently produce impactful outcomes.
The DevFacto Innovation Framework (DIF) is the result. This framework allows us to flexibly follow the work without losing the benefit of finely tuned processes we still trust and employ. It’s not the end, but rather a beginning that we can continue building around as new thoughts and processes emerge in our work to solve the old problems in better ways or in tackling new problems.
DIF is designed to be the foundation that we work on to solve your next problems, but we’re happy to share. You can learn more about DIF here, or get in touch below!
Taylor Reese is our Principal Innovator based in Edmonton, Alberta. His background is in design and facilitation, but he also loves drawing, cycling, and craft beer. He believes the things we build must improve the lives of those who use them. You can follow some of his adventures on LinkedIn or instagram – @sketchnote.love.
Jesse Naguib is an illustrator currently earning their Bachelor of Fine Arts at NSCAD University. They specialize in narrative illustration and sequential media. Jesse can be found on various social media sites such as Instagram, Youtube, and Patreon.
For this piece, they write "'We use innovation to empower teams and projects to make the most of any opportunity they uncover.' This line really inspired this illustration. When many people put their ideas and
energy together, innovation becomes so much easier! Teamwork is an essential part of turning ideas into reality."