It has now happened four times in the last 9 months: A Senior Executive of a company called us up because they were unhappy with their Agile (typically Scrum) practices. It has taken a bit of time to understand the pattern, but I think we've got it: Agility is making some companies less innovative. Let's explore some of the reasons why this can happen and how to fix it.
The Slippery Slope to Less Innovation
When an executive calls us looking for help, we typically ask a few broad questions. Executives at organizations who have been practicing Agile for some time usually report that quality is greatly improved, the development organization is happier, releases are more predictable, and the overall organization, including such things as putting software into production, just runs more efficiently.
So what's wrong? When I ask executives "Are you being innovative?" - meaning - are you creating and delivering "big chunk" innovations that continue to establish or maintain market leading positions, the executives typically exclaim "That's it! We're more Agile, but we're less innovative!". In one case, an executive admitted that he didn't think they'd delivered anything genuinely innovative in over a year. That's unacceptable, and it was a good thing that this executives "spidey sense" tripped.
The slippery slope to less innovation begins when teams adopt many common - and *very good* agile practices: Creating and prioritizing a backlog and producing potentially shippable, working software in 2-4 week time boxes (in Scrum-speak, a Sprint).
Sounds good, right?
Well, it _can_ be more than good. It can be _great_. Teams creating working software in predictable chunks? What can be better than that?
Innovation is Not Predictable
One problem is that innovation isn't predictable. It is a bit messy. As your teams gets better and better at hitting every iteration, they can inadvertently start to favor small pieces of work that always get done. Heck - we tell people that SMALL stuff is good and have a wonderful acronym invented by Bill Wake: INVEST. So, people create small stuff. Big chunky innovations get dropped. They are, after all, risky. They don't always work. They can negatively impact velocity. In fairness, it is entirely understandable that teams start focus on small, safe stuff.
From a product improvement perspective, customers do indeed enjoy small, incremental improvements along a number of dimensions. My friend Jeff Patton teaches this brilliantly when he explains why iterations are critical to successful Agile development.
Unfortunately, while customers often _enjoy_ small, incremental improvements, what they _really want_ are "big chunky innovations" to solve their ever-changing landscape of hard problems. And big chunky innovations are not small, incremental, are not iterative, and don't fit into one sprint. (And don't waste your time flaming me about the idea that customers enjoy small improvements. Sure, we all enjoy small improvements to our favorite applications. But that's not enough. And you know it.).
Epics are NOT big, chunky innovations
The Agile community has readily adopted the term "epic" to mean something that takes longer than a sprint. Typically decomposed into many user stories and related requirements (in creating our online Innovation Games® some of our own epics have exploded into more than 50 user stories and even more related requirements), epics are important for capturing big pieces of work.
But epics are not equivalent to the big, chunky innovations that I'm talking about.
Roadmaps capture big, chunky innovations
The big, chunky innovations that I'm talking about are best captured by your roadmap. Which is needed, because your roadmap is your antidote to the lack of innovation that can creep into Agile teams.
Which brings me full circle to the start of this post. Inevitably, when executives tell me that their Agile teams are being _less_ innovative, they also tell me that they don't have a roadmap, or that their roadmap only extends a meager 6 months into the future.
Keep all the power and greatness of Agile AND maintain your ability to deliver big, chunky, innovations into your market. Create a market-driven agile roadmap, make sure it captures big, chunky innovations, and use it as the first step in setting the direction of your team.
Finally, don't get so hung up on "perfect" velocity. In fact, if your teams are _always_ hitting "done, done" in every iteration, start to worry.
PS. Thanks to my friend Ron Lunde for pointing out much needed edits to the original post.