Great ideas

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Lee Nattress
Lee Nattress

No great technical innovations were ever had by a board of directors.

Their job is related to risk, and bigger financial fish. Their role is to harness an organisation for maximum profit.

By definition innovation requires change and change is risk, so why would they agree to allow wild ideas within an organisation?

In tech companies we like to think that Agile is risk mitigation. That having incremental changes to a product means we can pivot towards the goal quicker, and that waterfall is a bad thing. Everybody has seen the diagram with the skateboard becoming a car, right?

What if I told you that above a certain pay grade, Agile and frameworks like scrum are a myth?

For example, at the board of directors' level, they want to know that an investment of money will yield a result six months to a year from now. This long-term thinking goes hand in hand with financing a business for returns.

This is the least Agile a business can be. Deadlines and fixed targets. Or is it?

If a development team on the front lines is truly Agile in a large financially oriented organisation, then how is this possible?

It turns out that somewhere between the board of directors and the junior engineer is an adapter. Somebody that strides both waterfall and agile and takes the risk on.

The risk is their promise that our Agile teams will deliver value and please the directors in the time frame that will make them happy. This is usually a CEO, CTO or sometimes several of the c-suite.

There are a few frameworks that allow us to learn about the risks ahead of time. The most used recently being SCRUM. A business-oriented adapter that lets it understand a technical problem so it can be measured. Measurement is a key word here. We can only make decisions on scope and when to do work with our limited resources if we measure it.

With the risk taken upstream, leaders should encourage ideas, safe from the financially oriented fears of the people with deep pockets.

This psychological safety allows more imaginative solutions to problems. These things are historically riskier but have greater reward.

Even at the shareholder level, if asked, a money person might be convinced to take a risk if the outcomes, both positive and negative were explained. It's all about disclosure and expectation. They would accept a loss if the gains possible are worth it.

You must speculate to accumulate.

So how do we have great ideas?

First, we need to acknowledge that of the millions of developers on earth, most of us are simply towing the line and standing on the shoulders of giants.

When we write software it is rarely innovation. It is usually a framework or a package from a repository with strong documentation. Clicking together the Lego bricks of the tech world, as done over and over by thousands of others like us, ad nauseum.

Harrowing right?

It's insane to re-invent the wheel. It's crazy to write something when a solution exists, so we bring together dozens of other people's code and magically, we have something the customer perceives as value.

But anybody can do this. In fact, the pieces we use are documented well. They know we will use software A with software B. This is not innovation. This is following the rules and doing the same thing as everybody else. this will lead to boring software.

We must use the tools we have in unexpected ways and explore new methods to innovate. This means failing, a lot.

Failing Fast

We need to make a safe space where it is the first order of business to fail. We need to combine our tech in unexpected and new ways in order to find what does not work before we can show what does.

Rovio made over 50 failed games before a developer wrote a tech demo in their own time that later became Angry Birds.

Google maps started as an off the books project.

Apple started in a garage with a soldering iron and a screwdriver.

As soon as we find our team able to do wild stunts with code instead of following the beaten path, and have the business understand that this where the value lies then the quicker you can attach the term 'innovators' to a company honestly.

Wildcard Wednesday

It might not land on a Wednesday, but an entire day where you let a company off the fearful leash, they are on is mandatory for a high performing organisation.

It is wrong to consider that any approach to work is correct, and so logically we must assert that we need to try more ways.

Agree with yourself now that you are willing to at least try. Swallow the fear that nothing will get done on that day and give your company a day to be free to educate itself on how to make outside the box value.

Write it off. Don't police them. Managers can't interfere.

It is my experience that many of the innovations that come from days like Wildcard Wednesday (or Fearless Friday) are actually just the solutions that a business needs, and many of these seeds of innovation will become parts of the platform that people value.

You need to give ideas people a safe place and let them do their thing.

Go into your calendar now and make a recurring weekly session where you can work on anything you want, do it for all your team. You won't regret it.

1. Make a space without fear. Nobody can tell you what to do. You or your team are free from their fear too.
2. Ask people to allow failure. We expect to fail. This is as valuable as success.
3. It's got to fit in a single day. Just make a prototype or proof of concept. You aren't making a product, just proving a point.
4. Write it down. Was it a success? Fail? Share, share, share.

That's last part is the most important. We must know not to attempt the failed experiments again and we must take the successes more seriously.

I'll leave that process up to you.

Don't assume that just because you manage a team or run a business that you know the best way to solve a problem. Somebody has an idea that will either save money or add value to your product and the way you work is not allowing them the psychological safety to let them show you.

So let them show you.

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