Karine Sabatier


Being innovative and being agile are different

By SpaceX (Falcon Heavy and Dragon) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

As I coach organizations and teams to launch disruptive products, I often observe a confusion between the 2 topics. That’s what inspired this post on where I stand to this day.

The agile fantasy

I had a good laugh when I first opened Claudio Vandi’s Dictionary of innovation clichés (fr). Agile, of course, comes first : “Agile: everybody wants to be so. If you look at the opposite (slow, pretentious and burdensome) you understand why”.

Beyond this humorous definition, let’s just say that being agile has become a trend, a hype, and the term itself a catch-all word carrying a lot of misconceptions. When managers express what agility is for them, all sorts of fantasies arise: agility is creativity, agility is doing more faster, agility is killing all the processes… and for many, agility is innovation.

Being agile is first and foremost

  • Sticking to a rigorous (individual and collective) discipline that leads to a self-organized team, in which everyone shares responsibility and holds strong human values (see the manifesto)
  • Keeping a ‘Team Before Individuals’ behavior (very little room left for experts and top-down attitudes) where the client is at the core of the team, implying better & collective decisions
  • Working at a (sustainable) pace that drives a certain time control with the 3-level agile planning (release / sprint / day)
  • And above all being agile means fostering a continuous improvement culture (for the product but also for decisions and processes)

But to what end? The goal in being agile is to adapt to change and even to turn change into opportunities instead of something painful you have to endure. The agile stance is positive retro-action (react to change positively with hindsight — no try to anticipate it)

Innovation and agile are different

To innovate is to be pro-active: expect nothing, adapt to nothing and create change, create an unprecedented future.

Innovating and being agile have in fact very few in common but are supplementary. And one is not necessary to the other. Innovating is creating change. Being agile is adapting to change. The mindset is radically different.

The world Amazon should have conformed to (when it started, before it conquered every aspect of our digital life) was a world where bookstores were struggling to stay open. The world Zara should have conformed to was a strongly declining textile industry in Europe. Uber, in France, should have complied to a hostile environment where everyone had always said “Uber in France? With the taxi lobby? They won’t make it!” The world to which Expliseat should have bowed to was a very strict and normalized aeronautic industry with very few newcomers. All these companies have made the bet to create a new environment — their desirable future — instead of adapting to the existing one.

If we all complied and only tried to adapt to small (or big) changes, there would be no innovation. To adapt is to deal with the box, to innovate is to free oneself from the box.

Why this confusion between agility and innovation?

For one part, it comes from our perception of time. In popular imagination, you have to go fast to innovate (I personally think you have to be at the right time and the right place and for that, you have to be super resilient). The misconception that being agile means “doing more faster” nurtures the confusion.

Then, with the incredible hype of the Lean Startup and Design Thinking methodologies, we tend to systematically link innovation with user-centered approaches: the good innovation has to be the one that puts the client at the core of everything. And as agile methods also puts the client at the core of the process (to the extent that he has a dedicated “PO” role in the team) this brings on more confusion.

Beware of dogmas

Many successful innovation have thrived without being user-centered. And without even being agile. As for the need for speed, let’s just say that most of the innovations emerging these days have been imagined and created decades ago. And no one — except their creators — really cared about them during this long maturation process. This is true for cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robots, and many more)

It took Nespresso 21 years to change the way some of us consume coffee. Even Airbnb didn’t find its product market fit instantly, it took almost 4 years (and a lot of funding) and the subprime crisis (timing!) for them to succeed.

To innovate you have to be resilient enough to buy yourself some time and create the right conditions for your desirable future, however you chose to build it (agile or not).

Take advantage of both mindsets

Is it possible (and do we want to?) to embrace both approaches? I already wrote about combining both search for innovation and agile methods (fr), as long as you do not mix up goals and expectations.

In the search-for-innovation process (creating an unprecedented flow of events and new usage), working with agility will bring humanist values, collective intelligence, pace and rhythm so that you continue learning all along the process and become more resilient as iterations go by.

For traditional businesses, the agile frameworks bring on values and principles that are a kind of innovation per se. We’re talking managerial innovations: a reinvention of how we manage projects and processes that, in turn, implies new ways of managing teams and individuals (agile methods are indeed deeply challenging the way we work together and with our clients).

Beyond their interest for methods like Scrum or XP, organizations realize that being agile is more a mindset than just a set of project management tools. It helps you understand each other better, collaborate and produce more efficiently. And even though you can’t call that innovation, these are valuable inputs every structure can benefit from.

So what is innovation?

Innovation is not a method but an attitude based upon intuition, boldness, perseverance, observation and making sense of weak signals, convictions and resilience. To innovate, you have to master the art of dealing with uncertainty, complexity and serendipity. There is no known recipe for success with all these fallible, uncontrollable and human ingredients… except trial & error.

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