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Patterns toward Innovation

A few weeks ago, our team started working at the “pace of innovation”, or so I’ve called it. We hit a certain cadence that allowed us to innovate -- to create and deliver new ideas into production. How’d we do it? We threw out routine process and structure and started embodying certain patterns, the following of which I believe were key to let us innovate, and perhaps even more importantly, achieve the pace of innovation.

#1 Self-Identified, Self-Created Work

Looking at our house hunting exercise, everyone on my team was able to bid on the house — choose the work — he or she wanted to do. When you have interest in something, you’ll do it with greater energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. In short, you’ll do it with passion. More than simply choosing the work, you must have the autonomy to create how it is done. You must be able to create its design, the design of the solution. If you rob someone of that creativity, you rob him or her of the ability to reach the pace of innovation.

#2 Self-Forming Teams

Part of letting people work the way they want is letting them collaborate the way they want. Assigning teams such that people end up working on something they feel lukewarm about is a near guarantee for mediocrity. You’ve got to have people excited about what they’re working on to propel them towards the pace of innovation. The energy of excitement is crucial. And if you’re working with people who are as passionate as you, it’s much more likely you’ll hit that pace more quickly and with greater ease.

Here, it’s important to note our self-forming teams —our pods — succeeded because they were accountable to our product and, ultimately, our business goals, which our Product Manager, Ethan Teng, had laid out clearly and emphatically to the team. If, however, people aren’t aligned with your mission, self-forming teams can quickly veer off track.

#3 Co-located Teams

Innovation seldom occurs in isolation. It requires synergy - of people, knowledge and ideas. Distribute people across countries and continents and you attenuate their ability to effectively collaborate.  While distributed teams may work well for other types of work, I argue they do not for innovation. Only by working in the same space and place, can a team share, create visibility and understanding, and develop its own gruppegeist - group spirit. This team energy is necessary to attain the pace of innovation, not only for the momentum they generate, but also for the personality and voice they give the resultant work.

#4 Necessary and Diverse Skill — Loose Roles

For innovation to occur, you need the right people — with the right skills — to make it happen. You will not be able to innovate in the software space without knowledgeable engineers. You will not be able to innovate in design without an understanding of aesthetics. In whatever field you practice, you need experience to offer insight. And more often than not, that experience is gained through hard work and earnest observation over extended periods of time.

You also need diversity of thought and skill. Rarely does innovation occur without the minds, eyes, and opinions of many. It is this amalgam that helps give birth to innovation. As such, teams must not be grouped by strictly defined roles working in silos, regardless of proximity. Forget roles! They make people risk averse and bring friction to the flow of ideas.

#5 Stability

Innovation requires a certain level of stability. However, perhaps homeostasis is more apt here, for innovation happens in and is part of an ecosystem. It is a higher-level activity and as such needs lower level functions, such as systems and performance, to be stable and steady. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for psychological health, the physiology of your system must be in order for you to ascend toward self-actualization (in which Maslow would almost undoubtedly categorize the activity of innovation).

Due to all the work we did to stabilize our product’s SaaS system, combined with our thorough automation discipline and continuous delivery practice, we could and continue to move fast without breaking our system or threatening our team’s homeostasis.

#6 Consistent Progress

Innovation is about learning. It’s about discovery and connecting the dots of those discoveries into an intelligible whole. Innovation cannot occur if you’re not consistently learning...consistently making progress. You need the win of learning (often achieved by what many call failure), of taking a step further, even if in an unexpected direction, to generate the energy to propel you further.

The consistent progress our team was making, in terms of building and delivering — learning, refining, and simplifying — helped us hit the pace of innovation. Having daily showcases (with no pressure to demo if your work didn’t produce functionality; the only expectation was to showcase learning) helped keep us honest. Even more, it kept us focused on gaining knowledge, however modest. That small increment of knowledge is a step closer to deeper understanding.

#7 Ephemeral, Lightweight Artifacts

Innovation is fleeting. Though repeatable, it is finite. Innovation cannot be bound. It must happen freely without weight or boundary. What has been so liberating about how we’re working is that we’ve let go of traditional stories. We’ve freed ourselves of having to fit our innovation into discrete boxes that effectively narrow our focus and reduce our vision of what is possible.

Though stories can serve their purpose for subsequent development, having seen and felt what it was like without them, they seem to have proved an anchor, certainly for me if not our entire team. Having the ability to organically float among ideas, among our pods, without being tied to a leash of an artifact seemed to give us the lightness we needed to achieve the pace of innovation.

#8 Variety

Variety is crucial to innovation. You must have variety not only in what you’re working on, but also in how you’re working. In that variety, you’re exercising diverse muscles, not all at once, but in sequence, such that you’re letting rest parts of your body and mind that simply can’t run full throttle for indefinite periods of time. Call it circuit training, but make sure you introduce variety, ideally both to the domain in which you’re working and the methodology you’re utilizing. Punctuating your rhythms with regular shots of new will undoubtedly enrich your primary focus and way of working. It promises to keep your focus and process at once intense, light, and nimble, while helping break stale patterns and, ultimately, achieve the pace of innovation.

The off-site hackdays were a refreshing injection for our team. They took us outside of our familiar office space, where perhaps we had become numb — blind even — to our surroundings. The new environment changed the energy of our team and affected it upon return to our normal space, for the better.

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Experiment with these patterns and see what impact they have on your team. You’ll never know what change they may bring.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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