Agile innovation, the profitable application of creativity, aims to design breakthrough solutions that optimize efficiency, improve market position through new product development or result in new enterprise structures. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that in a recent Center for Creative Leadership online survey of more than 500 global leaders, 53 percent chose agile innovation as one of the top trends to impact their businesses over the next five years. The need to embrace agile innovation is also being accelerated by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, that is compelling businesses to implement virtual work policies, seek innovative solutions to the virus’ disruptive impacts and establish clear new business priorities under these unprecedented circumstances.
According to survey respondents, there are five primary benefits that agile innovation brings:
- Individuals: Increases engagement and retention, making the organization less vulnerable to shifts in the talent market.
- Team: Increases team morale through cross-collaboration and experimentation.
- Client: Focuses development on meeting client needs.
- Market: Accelerates time to market, revenue growth and market share.
- Future: Future-proofs the organization to adapt to accelerating market trends.
With these positive expectations for agile innovation’s impact, respondents also identified the top three potential barriers to implementing agile innovation methodologies, which can impact both individual leaders and teams as they work toward aggressive goals and timelines.
Top 3 Challenges Impacting Agile Innovation — and Tips for Mitigating Them
The first challenge is team silos. Agile innovation inherently requires cross-collaboration — and never more so than in the time of digital and virtual work. New products require expertise from many knowledge fields spanning big data, AI and machine learning, IT, manufacturing, IOT, agile design — and these skills will come from a variety of teams working together.
So what can leaders do to break down silos? Be very intentional about building trust, particularly as employees work from home to limit the spread of COVID-19. Humans naturally sort themselves by expertise, role, location, demographic, level and so on, and those boundaries do not disappear automatically when people are assigned to a problem or project. Until relationships are well established, people may be cautious about co-developing ideas, iterating quickly and testing together. Physical distance among team members who are working remotely or in different locations and time zones can make collaboration even more challenging.
To promote cross-boundary collaboration at your organization, set your teams up for success by:
- Reminding them to facilitate the group’s relationships, not just the team outputs.
- Establishing new norms and shared understanding.
- Recognizing and acknowledging the challenges that physical distance brings.
- Encouraging leaders of remote teams to be intentional about making meetings feel less virtual by using technology to create real-time connections and by formalizing and articulating team norms.
The second challenge is risk intolerance. A culture of innovation requires support for experimentation and collaboration. This means creating an environment where candid — even difficult — conversations can take place up, down and across the organization. Far too often, leaders can subconsciously sabotage innovation by behaving in ways that kill new ideas. The sabotage isn’t deliberate — they really want to foster innovation in their organizations — but they don’t know how to support it and fail to recognize their behaviors that unintentionally discourage it.
Innovative ideas will blossom when leaders encourage teams to help develop innovation by listening to diverse voices, ask teams to actively encourage one another to develop ideas, and set clear criteria for taking ideas forward. What criteria must be met and when? Clarifying the decision-making process for investing in innovation will ensure teams understand the organization’s balance between risks and expected returns, especially during this uncertain time.
To ensure that they don’t fall into the trap of being risk intolerant, leaders should:
- Encourage a fluid, agile hierarchy and structure that allows individuals and teams to form agile networks.
- Make innovation a core value/outcome for multiple functions within the organization — not just R&D.
- Allow for ambiguity — ideas need time to formulate and be discussed before they are formally evaluated.
- Clarify the criteria for evaluating ideas — what will move ideas forward in the innovation funnel?
- Make decisions quickly — nothing paralyzes innovation more than indecision that stalls out momentum and motivation.
Finally, the third top challenge is goal ambiguity. A famous parable illustrates the perils of conflicting goals within cross-functional teams. A group of blind men who have never seen an elephant before must conceptualize what it is — but each can only touch one part. As they articulate what they believe the elephant is, each has radically different views and begins to accuse the others of lying. The blurred boundaries between cross-functional teams and the speed at which they are asked to operate makes it imperative that goals are shared and achievable. Understanding the whole picture — not the individual parts — is imperative for teams to be effective.
In times of uncertainty, leaders need to be very clear on the direction of the team and what they are to achieve. Is the team to create innovative solutions that minimize cost while improving efficiencies? If so, by how much? What would make it worth investing in the solution? What is the timeline? What will the team de-prioritize is just as important to articulate. How will COVID-19 affect their processes? How will they mitigate those challenges? This may seem like management 101 — but it’s absolutely essential to a high-performing agile team.
To ensure that goals are clear and unambiguous:
- Articulate the goal and then measure whether the team believes the goal is clear. You may think it is — the team might not. Clarify what success looks like and let the team help shape that vision.
- Consider implementing a measurement system that clarifies objectives and key results, or OKRs. Simple red/yellow/green indicators leave no doubt on progress.
- When evaluating ideas, be very deliberate about asking “How does this approach/method/idea help us reach our goal?”
- Continuously communicate. What’s getting in the way? What is the team already doing to achieve sub-goals and remove barriers?
Agile innovation is critical to weathering the many storms created by COVID-19, and also those created by the general rise of a global economy, digital disruption and the accelerated pace of technology. But the promise of agile innovation can be derailed by team silos, risk intolerance and goal ambiguity. These challenges can be mitigated by building trust, allowing for ambiguity and sharpening communication of goals and how they will be measured. That investment will lead to a robust organization focused on and ready for whatever the future brings.