Win conditions: How to build an innovation-driven culture

Jan 9, 2018 | Perspectives in Engineering

Agile, Scrum, Lean, Kanban… There are plenty of different approaches to developing software. And there’s no shortage of advice for what The Right Way® really is.

But the problem with adopting a new methodology is that it doesn’t change the way an engineer thinks software should be developed. Moving to an agile framework doesn’t make your team more agile unless everyone adopts an agile mentality.

“The most important, and most challenging, phase of implementing agility is developing the mentality,” says Product Architect and Innovation Leader George Krasadakis.

Product Architect and Innovation leader

Krasadakis has been leading Product Engineering teams and Innovation programmes for both startups and multinational corporations. He’s made a career out of fostering highly effective teams that stay lightweight and continuously drive innovation — despite the company’s size.

In this interview, he breaks down how to cultivate an innovative mentality across your team, and provides practical advice for tech managers to maintain this way of thinking moving forward.

The conditions necessary for innovation

“For all the talk about agile engineering, the concept is not well understood,” Krasadakis says. “Agility, more than anything, is a mindset. But it’s not very easy to convince people of a different way to work.”

Here are some of the key components of an agile mindset within a company, according to Krasadakis:

 

1. Recognize that innovation can happen anywhere

Everyone in the organization—no matter their area of expertise—can identify and propose potential solutions. “Anyone could highlight a business opportunity, technology, trend, or something else really remarkable,” he says. Whether it’s a small experiment or the Next Big Idea, ideas are welcomed from anyone.

 

2. Foster an environment that welcomes failure

“The most critical aspect is to make people feel that it’s okay to fail,” he says. “People should feel comfortable with experimenting. For agility’s sake, they should be able to bypass formalities and even set up teams to work on great ideas without having to wait for approval.”

“It’s not very easy to convince people that this is the way to work,” he adds. “People expect processes. They’re familiar with structure, and so they feel often attached to having it. It takes time to help people expand how they think about developing software, even more, when they start expanding how you and everyone else thinks about what being agile truly means.”

One way to build this trust while ensuring that people are driving value for the organization is to define success criteria and exit criteria as soon as possible. “So an individual has an idea for an experiment, they quickly scope it in an agile manner, and then define points along the way with success criteria,” Krasadakis explains. “Meet the criteria, iterate, and follow the value. If you fail to meet the criteria, that’s a successful experiment — with a no-go decision.”

Fail fast, fail safe.

 

3. Kill bureaucracy

“Even though there are traditional roles, we advise the team to basically forget about them,” he says. “Forget about levels within the project. Think of a really flat, dynamic, agile team. And start working.” In his experience, Krasadakis finds that structure and innovation are not very compatible. Flat models perform much more effectively. So the more you can do away with formal hierarchies, and varying levels of decision making power, the more your team is free to innovate fearlessly.

 

4. Get buy-in from stakeholders

When it comes to getting buy-in from stakeholders, it all really boils down to communicating the ‘why’, and educating them enough so that they know how the process works and don’t interfere, change their mind, or pull team members away and onto different projects.

“When external stakeholders understand the purpose of your goal, and agree to the rules of the game, it builds this feeling of trust that’s really important for engineers to be able to contribute and innovate,” Krasadakis explains.

Becoming agile doesn’t happen overnight, and stakeholders might not understand everything that’s involved. Consider using transparency as a tool: regularly reporting progress (and celebrating your teams’ wins) will help everyone understand how your team is working.

Hire for the mindset

Certainly, one way to build an agile mindset is to hire for it. If you’re scaling, this practice is easier to incorporate for obvious reasons. But every company has hiring needs. And even an established business can foster its agility each time it infuses new blood.

When you’re looking at candidates, it’s definitely a good sign if they can discuss agility. But even if they’ve never heard the term, there’s qualities you can seek out in a potential team member.

“Personally, I am looking for passion,” Krasadakis says. “Real passion for technology. And self-motivation is critical.”

He also looks for candidates who respond to a draft idea by naturally and immediately starting to work it in their minds. That’s a more revealing quality than a high skill level, at least when it comes to being agile and innovative. After all, agile employees can probably learn any skills you throw their way. Can – and will, under their own propulsion. Because these are the self-starters and the entrepreneurial types.

“I ask questions that are high-level and abstract with no right or wrong answer. Just to see how the candidates follow a particular pattern, see their thought process. Personally, I am looking for passion.”

So besides giving them draft ideas, how does Krasadakis identify these candidates in the hiring process?

“I’m experimenting with that, as well,” he says. “I ask questions that are high-level and abstract with no right or wrong answer. Just to see how the candidates follow a particular pattern, see their thought process. And open-ended questions. How would you build a system to do this and this and that? And let them come up with a crazy idea.”

In some cases, he gives candidates hands-on development challenges. Here’s a problem; build your function. But that’s useful for certain roles and positions, and less so when you’re hiring for a mentality.

Ultimately, you want a team that’s strategic, creative, data-driven, and fast. Krasadakis identifies this kind of talent by giving interviewees the opportunity to create and drive their own solutions.

Align leadership and tech with agility

Krasadakis identifies two additional considerations that support continuous innovation: agile leadership, and having a platform that encourages individuals to submit and collaborate on ideas.

“At the higher level, at the management level, we should be always open to discuss a new technology, a new proposal, even when it is not aligned with our strategy” Krasadakis says. “We should be open to ~~to an~~ alternatives, and have the ability to quickly adapt.”

Said differently, your innovation-driven culture should be adapted and supported at the top.

Krasadakis recommends having a platform for information sharing, so that anyone at any level can easily discover and act on ideas. He says, “Organizations should have a dedicated channel to act as an ideation system — a platform that facilitates the flow of ideas throughout the company. It should be accessible, seamless, simple, and make ideas easily discoverable.”

Organizations should have a dedicated channel to act as an ideation system — a platform that facilitates the flow of ideas throughout the company.

Part of the shift for management is to adjust its risk tolerance. This connects to the idea that engineers must feel able to fail. Technology can assist management here, as well. Say a crazy idea comes in now that is way ahead of its time. For whatever reasons, it just can’t be implemented right away. That idea can be allowed to fail in the moment.

But into the future, a year or more out, it may well be a timely idea to consider. Why should anyone have to come up with the idea a second time? An engineer shot down once is less apt to propose it again. “So ideas should be stored into a system and stay active,” Krasadakis recommends. “Companies should not delete or archive ideas. They simply just reprioritize them.”

Krasadakis uses multiple criteria and dimensions to manage prioritization of ideas.
And he writes, in another Medium post, about the points and principles to consider before you invest in an ideation platform. The unique culture and needs of your own organization will help you define what your own system will be.

Whatever tech you use, it is simply an extension of the communication taking place within your organization. And the whole concept of fostering a mindset in engineers and managers alike, a mindset that embodies agility – rather than relying on formal processes and structure – is definitely one big crazy idea. But if you develop the mindset across your org, you’ll get that the craziness is precisely why innovation flourishes among these teams.

Perspectives in engineering leadership

 


 

Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson is a co-founder at GitPrime where he leads design and customer experience. He is a Y Combinator alumni, with a background in product design, branding, and UX design. Follow @thebent on Twitter.

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