Innovate November 2017

Agile Innovation

Written By: David Whitney

Effective and successful innovation does not happen by accident. Instead, effectiveness results because a process for producing successful innovation allows for incremental improvements to occur along the way. By including incremental improvements in the innovation process, companies successful at innovation are able to create a culture where high performance excellence is the norm. These are cultures where collaboration is highly valued and where the environment motivates individuals and their teams to be great. These are the organizational cultures where performance excellence is measured by the frequency with which innovation is conceived, advanced, produced and commercialized.

These distinguishing characteristics are possessed by companies successful at innovation. They practice a culture where a collaborative work environment is present – along with a commitment to be constant and continuous at doing whatever’s necessary to produce innovation. They recognize to be successful at innovation is to commit to a continuous and collaborative process where adaptability, speed and making incremental improvements are the norm. The companies that possess these characteristics and exercise them are agile.

The practice of agile innovation is targeted at discovering and developing better problem-solving innovations. Tracing its origins to how agile methods are successfully used in developing software, agile innovation is characterized by a process of learning how to collaborate more profitably and effectively by leveraging an organizational culture that conceives, creates, launches, tests, improves and commercializes innovative concepts. The goal of agile innovation is to produce innovation outcomes, yet the reality is failures occur frequently, so emphasizing agility and adaptability is crucial to achieving successes – and overcoming failures – involving the practice of agile innovation.

Achieving successful agile innovation outcomes start with organization-wide commitments. These commitments can be open-ended, though to increase the probability of success, they should emphasize performance excellence, process agility and quality of production. I learned a great deal about the subject of agile innovation in a book I read on the subject. The book, “Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity,” is authored by subject matter experts, Langdon Morris, Moses Ma and Po Chi Wu, who described how to build an innovative business culture that is both fast and nimble.

The authors outlined how to seize opportunities before the competition does; and they described, in five characteristics, what it takes to get ahead – and what needs to be done to stay ahead – in practicing agile innovation.

Speed: The practice of accelerating the innovation process in order to produce maximum results in the least amount of time. Having innovation teams that are nimble, adaptable and willing to pivot are critical to speeding up innovation outcomes.

Creativity: Allowing imagination to be part of the discovery and development process. Consider asking open-ended questions like, “What if?” and “Why not?” to tease out as much creativity and imagination in the discovery and development phases of the agile innovation process.

Risk: Reducing innovation risk is a balancing act. Too much risk and the innovation outcome could be ahead of its time and not resonate with its target market. Too little risk and not enough improvements are made in order to get targeted users to switch to the new product or service.

Engagement: Again, a balancing act is needed when it comes to engagement. Too little engagement can result in some parts of the organization not included or not relevant or impacted. Too much engagement and the organization can be distracted by too much, too soon and too fast.

Leadership: The best insights from the leaders of breakthrough innovations underscore the importance of making the right choices, at the right time in order to get the entire organization on the move in the right direction. Successful leadership creates environments where problem-solving ideas can germinate, grow, collide, combine, evolve, pivot – and eventually, succeed or fail.

As is universally known, having effective leadership contributes to how and why success occurs. Effective leadership is an ingredient also involved in the recipe for success in practicing agile innovation. To understand better how effective leadership contributes to agile innovation’s success, I turned to a trusted colleague and good friend, Michael Cottmeyer, who is the CEO and co-founder of Atlanta-based LeadingAgile.

From Cottmeyer and others, I learned the basics of agile methods: The building of proof of concept designs – minimum viable products, or MVPs – in which early versions of products, services, processes or systems are produced and released into the marketplace even if their functionality is nowhere near 100 percent. That’s ok because the goal of hacking MVPs is for them to be tested by prospective customers; the prospective customers provide feedback that is then evaluated and incorporated into subsequent versions of the MVP. Because agile methods call for empirical feedback loops and full transparency, performance metrics are critical to the innovation process. These metrics contribute to the integrity, timeliness and relevance of the agile innovation process. Key performance measurements include customer satisfaction, product quality, speed and employee engagement.

As in most innovation activities, outcomes rely on people’s level of engagement and the insights they contribute to the process. I know from my own research and experience the importance of having the right people involved in the process and practice of agile innovation. Having small, adaptable, and agile teams in place follows the insights of best-selling author Jim Collins in his highly respected book “Good to Great.” Collins’ recommendation: “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats on the bus. Then stick with that discipline – first the people, then their roles – no matter how dire the circumstances.”

Companies successful at agile innovation channel creativity in order to align two valuable outcomes. First, these companies produce innovative solutions that solve identifiable and important problems. Second, they are skilled at commercializing innovative solutions in an economical, profitable and timely manner. These sought-after outcomes are then tightly integrated in the direction, pace, changes and demands of the marketplace. When this alignment occurs, the key characteristics of the agile innovation process – nimbleness and adaptability – demonstrates the immeasurable value of agile innovation.

Technology continues to flatten the world, making innovation a “must have” ingredient in a company’s recipe to compete locally and globally. Companies that embrace agile innovation and leverage its outcomes are positioning themselves to more successfully adapt to an ever-changing world. The most adaptable and agile of companies follow the following steps for practicing agile innovation in pursuit of gaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace:

  1. Design, implement and manage the right type of business models and innovation processes. Doing so helps to out-innovate the competition, be agile and produce quality innovations.
  2. Mitigate innovation’s inherent risks by making informed and timely decisions. The process of innovation reducing risk factors in how much time, money and human capital is available to be spent in commercializing proposed problem-solving solutions.
  3. Lengthen and deepen the pool of potential problem-solving solutions by engaging a larger group of contributions – the entire organization and the company’s ecosystem – in pursuit of problem-solving innovation solutions.
  4. Develop and exercise best-in-class leadership skills. And then, unleash this exceptional leadership talent within the organization to produce problem-solving, world-changing innovations.

Agile innovation is a proven method practiced by organizations intent on speed, agility and achieving performance excellence. It produces measurable benefits while enabling companies to engage actively with customers, pivot in response to customer needs, enhance cross-functional team collaboration and rapidly respond to changing marketplace dynamics. Agile innovation practices create innovations that solve existing customer problems, attract new customers, adapt to changing industry dynamics and distance the company from its competition.


DAVID WHITNEY writes about innovation and entrepreneurship and consults with companies on all-things involving innovation and entrepreneurship. Whitney has taught courses on innovation and entrepreneurship in both college and corporate classrooms and currently serves as Innovatorin-Residence at LeadingAgile Innovation Labs. As Innovatorin-Residence, Whitney uses his operational and subject matter expertise to help LeadingAgile’s clients and strategic partners deploy teams of entrepreneurialminded employees to produce problem-solving, innovative solutions. In addition to these activities, Whitney serves as co-Chair of Innovation Gainesville 2.0, a regional-based initiative in which people and organizations collaborate to strengthen Gainesville’s innovation economy by bringing 3,500 jobs and securing $250 million in capital investment to the Gainesville region.


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