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Choosing the Lean and Agile Innovation Practices

Published on 29th May 2012

Innovation can be a tricky thing: Not only does it means different things to different people, but creating a brand-new product requires different practices compared to updating a mature one. This post helps you choose the right lean and agile practices to innovate successfully. It introduces three innovation stages and explains how product ownership, process, and project setup are influenced by the amount of uncertainty present.


Three Stages of Innovation

Innovation forms a continuum ranging from maintaining an existing product to creating a brand-new one. To select the right practices, I find it helpful to divide the continuum into three stages: a maintenance stage, a new feature stage, and a new product stage, as the table below shows. The table is inspired by Nagji and Tuff’s HBR article “Managing Your Innovation Portfolio”.

Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3
Maintaining a product Creating new features Creating a new product
Innovation is low Innovation is medium Innovation is high

In the table above, the degree of uncertainty and innovation rises from left to right. Whereas stage three focuses on protecting existing assets, stage one and two are about investing in the future.

The three innovation stages correspond to the product’s lifecycle: Every product starts in stage one. After its launch, the product moves into stage two, and eventually, it arrives in stage three.


Understanding the Innovation Stages

Stage 3: Maintaining a product means making small incremental updates to ensure that the product stays competitive and profit goals are met. The product management focus is typically on maximising the desired business benefits, for instance, minimise cost and maintain revenue. The innovation is low, and there is little uncertainty about what the product should look like and do, and how it is built. Experimentation and failure are hence not desirable. Planning the work and executing the plan works well. Most products in an established company fall into this category, and companies often optimise their processes and structures for this stage.

Stage 2: One or more new features are created. This enhances an existing product, for instance, to increase the market share, or to enter a new market. Creating new features may require dealing with a new target group or addressing new needs, changing the user experience, or employing new technologies. Consequently, there is a significant amount of uncertainty present. Experimentation and failure are helpful to acquire the necessary knowledge and to develop the right features in the right way.

Stage 1: A brand-new product aimed at a new or an existing market is created. Developing the product may involve addressing a new target group or new user needs, creating a new user experience, employing new technologies or a new business model. There are many more unknowns than knowns. The innovation present is high to very high. Rapid experimentation is a must, as it helps the team fail fast to succeed sooner: to create the right product for the right people. The stage-one products usually form the smallest group in a mature enterprise.


Employing the Right Practices

Distinguishing between the three innovation stages enables us to choose the right practices. These include the process and the project organisation employed, and the way product ownership is implemented. The table below summarises my observations.

Innovation Stage Process Setup
Stage 3:

Maintenance

Linear (Kanban-based) Distributed or collocated
Stage 2:

New Features

Iterative, experimental (Scrum) Collocated
Stage 1:

New Product

Iterative, experimental (Scrum or Lean Startup plus Kanban) Incubator

As stage three aims to maximise the business benefits, for example, profit for a revenue-generating product, a linear process tends to work well – it facilitates efficiency. Employing a Kanban-based approach that leverages pull, collaboration, and visualisation is usually beneficial. Collocating team members may a plus but is often not mandatory.

In stage two the focus shifts from efficiency to effectiveness: quickly resolving uncertainty by acquiring the relevant knowledge. This requires an iterative process that supports experimentation such as Scrum. A single product owner is beneficial to enable effective decision-making. The team members should be collocated, and product owner and team should collaborate on an ongoing basis.

In stage one, effective experimentation becomes even more important. Scrum with short sprints, or Lean Startup combined with Kanban work well. The latter allows running experiments in varying lengths in parallel, but it tends to be more difficult to master. Product owner and team should form an incubator, a new, temporary organisation that is loosely coupled to the rest of the company. This provides the team with the freedom to try out new things and to literally think outside the box.


Conclusion

Choose your innovation practices to suit your needs: Your mature products are likely to benefit from practices that facilitate efficiency such as a linear process. To develop new features or a new product, you should select different practices, practices that help resolve uncertainty and acquire new knowledge. Applying an iterative, experimental process, and enabling collaboration will be key.

Post a Comment or Ask a Question

3 Comments

  • In today’s competitive business environment, innovation is the key! Unless a business comes out with new and innovative products, it’s hard to win the confidence of the customers.

  • Great post! Showing the different stages of innovation and agile practices will help a lot of people interested in this topic.

    This post works for teams who only work on product innovation. I have seen a number of teams that work both on product innovation and customer projects (mostly smaller companies). This mixes Stage 1 & 2 and can get some conflict sometimes.

    • Hi Jeroen,

      Thanks for your feedback. When I engage with teams tasked with creating new features and with maintaining the product, I often suggest to use Scrum to develop the new features, and a linear, Kanban-based process to manage the maintenance work. I find it more challenging when a team creates a brand-new product and has to take care of maintenance and support work at the same time. My preference is to allow the team to focus on the new product and release its members from the maintenance duties.

      Does this help?

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