How to spark innovation within a scaled agile environment?

December 20, 2019 Focus area: Scaling Agile , Continuous Innovation

Organizations nowadays struggle with innovation. In the digital age, the pace of change has gone into hyper speed, and companies must get both strategic, creative, executional and organizational factors right to innovate successfully and on time. However, we see that organizations are mostly advanced in execution rather than in innovation. We define innovation as the process between the emergence of an idea and a fully developed new set of organizational activities, technologies, products or services. Without a clear process of development, innovation projects tend to last too long which decreases their market opportunity. Even if an innovation pilot is successful, the integration of these innovative products or services with the usual business is often suboptimal. This brings several issues to concern. One relates to the challenge of scaling up successful innovations to truly make an impact at scale. The second relates to the challenge of building a capacity in already established organizations for continuous innovation rather than for ‘one-hit wonders’.

This article describes how organizations often have insufficient structures and processes in place to let innovation flourish when operating in a scaled agile environment. It will show which challenges organizations face and how the Continuous Innovation Framework (COIN) provides a solution to this challenge.


Innovation and scaling frameworks
Most corporate organizations are mainly focused on execution. They have agile processes in place and some even use scaling practices like the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to shorten time-to-market and increase the predictability of delivery. SAFe works really well when organizations want to optimize their operational effectivity, but it does not take something quirky like innovation into account. The framework briefly highlights the Innovation and Planning Sprint (IP Sprint) as a way to foster innovation. In reality, however, the IP sprint generally acts as an estimating buffer for meeting the PI Objectives, Inspect and Adapt, PI planning and continuing education. Sometimes organizations host hackathons as a tool to stimulate the creative and problem-solving juices of developer. However, they are unwedded activities in a restricted timeframe without forecasting any capacity for perpetuation.

Furthermore, when an innovative idea does arise, it will almost always be discarded in the Portfolio Kanban when compared to the existing prioritized backlog. Innovative ideas seldomly make it to prioritization in the Portfolio Kanban because SAFe uses the Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF). This is a method to prioritize work items on a backlog and is primarily focused on achieving maximum economic benefit. WSJF is calculated as the cost of delay divided by job size, using elements like business value, time criticality and risk reduction. However, the business value of innovative ideas cannot be known in advance. Outcomes are uncertain and need to be experienced and learned. If an innovative idea enters the Portfolio Kanban and gets prioritized via WSJF, it is almost certain to end up at the bottom of a backlog.

From the Portfolio Kanban works flows over to the Program Kanban and is used as input for the Program Increment Planning Event, an event where all teams together plan the work for the next quarter. This is being done by a team of teams (e.g. Agile Release Train or ART). An ART is a virtual organization that plans, commits and develops together[Av'S1] every three months. It consists of long-lived teams, which means that all teams have dedicated people and are stable for as long as possible. With this SAFe creates an environment where the work is systematically brought to the people instead of the people to the work, which makes sense in a ‘change and run’ environment where product development takes place. Nevertheless, to innovate organizations need variable teams, not fixed teams, working on variable work because innovation is focused on building unpredictable solutions with people who come from different divisions and disciplines. This is not possible in the set-up of how Agile Release Trains and teams currently work in the SAFe framework.

The COIN framework

The SAFe framework is highly effective when it comes to balancing demand and capacity in operational business processes, but it is debatable when it comes to fostering innovation. What is required for the creation of an ongoing process of innovation is a framework, similar to SAFe, that is aimed specifically at growing innovative ideas up to the point where they can be integrated into the default operation. This process, which can easily be implemented as a precursor to the SAFe framework, is the Continuous Innovation Framework (COIN). COIN is a model designed to help individual stakeholders in an organization to better work together to facilitate a continuous process of innovation. It covers all stages of innovation development, from ideation, validation and experimentation to scale-up and embedding. COIN seamlessly integrates with the SAFe framework in the ‘Scale Up’ and the ‘Embed’ phase of innovation.

Innovation in corporations is often portrayed as a staged model. It starts when individuals create innovative ideas. These innovators, often supported by a multidisciplinary innovation-team, then experiment with the idea until they prove (or disprove) that the innovation works. Once the concept, or Minimum Viable Product (MVP), has been proven, the idea needs to be scaled up to generate real market value. COIN supports this process through short-cycled, iterative experimentation cycles called SWICH’s. A SWICH (Six Week Innovation Challenge) entails a six-week period of experimentation, based on Lean Startup principles, in which the innovation team spends 1 day per week dedicated on the development of the innovation. The objective of each SWICH is to obtain real market feedback to validate the value and/or feasibility of the innovation. In COIN, each innovation can have three SWICH’s to prove its potential value to the organization. After this period of 18 weeks the organization decides whether or not to scale-up its efforts for the development of the innovation. In essence this means that the innovation will then be eligible for development capacity from the SAFe organization and should be able to maintain a prioritized position on a SAFe backlog. To allow for a smooth integration of innovations from the COIN Framework to SAFe organization, the cadence of the COIN Framework (including the 18-week SWICH period) is set-up in such a way that its rituals always coincide with the rituals in the SAFe organization, such as Lean Portfolio Management and PI Planning.

So, in the scale-up phase the innovation team usually requires more development capacity to further develop the MVP into a real market solution. The single multidisciplinary team is no longer equipped to deliver such capacity. That needs to come from the existing Agile organization. Yet the resources of this organization are fully managed by the Portfolio Kanban in SAFe, without exceptions. The COIN Framework covers the entire innovation process in a transparent, structured and predictable way. COIN ensures that in the early stages of development, an MVP grows big enough to get a reasonable prioritization on the SAFe backlog. And that in the later stages it is owned by a Business Owner that will shepherd it through the SAFe Portfolio Kanban process. In essence, COIN is used to monitor and foster the scale-up of an innovation once it lands in an allocated Agile Release Train, where the ART is responsible to further develop the idea and deliver incrementally.

Concluding from this we learn that Scaled Agile environments typically offer insufficient support in terms of capacity for early stage innovations. Existing innovation methodologies, however, focus on the early experimentation stages and MVP development. They offer no good solution for integration of innovation scale-up activities using existing capacity in Agile environments. In order to really spark innovation, organizations need another set of tools, practices and structures. The COIN Framework offers a transparent process for the early stage development of innovations and for the integration into the core Agile processes of the existing change-organization. This greatly enhances the adoption of innovations during scale-up and embedding in the organization and thus the return on innovation efforts.

For more detail about COIN: continuousinnovation.net