Does Iterative Development Stifle Innovation?

bulb in hand“Shorter sprints leave less time to recover if a promising but risky initial approach fails to pan out.” – My Primary Criticism of Scrum, by Mike Cohn

I came across the above blog post from Mike Cohn today and it got me thinking about whether and how my development teams innovate. It is definitely easy to get into a rut, where the team is constantly focused on the simplest possible solution and burning down. It is up to the project leads (Project Manager or Technical Lead) to be intentional about encouraging innovation within the boundaries of the agile process. For our project teams, this is a two step process:

First, project leads must look for opportunities to innovate. Sometimes this will result directly from a Retrospective improvement. Other times, the project leaders need to recognize when a project has a need for innovative solutions and the space and time to pursue those solutions. There is no science here, this is a balance of project resources (people and time) against the value of the innovation.

Second, once we make the decision to explore a new technology, approach or process, we break down the steps to complete this exploration. We define a user story, estimate the story and break it down into smaller stories as necessary. Next we task out the steps needed to satisfy the story or stories and, finally, we execute the stories in time boxed iterations.

I’ve found it useful to place time limits on research tasks. Research is one of those activities that can go down the rabbit hole. When asking developers their Definition of Done for research tasks, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I’ll know it when I see it.” I could work with the developer to force them to define “done” for the story or task, but instead I usually just say ask them how long they want to spend on the research (e.g., four hours, full day, whole week). We use that time frame as a hard stop to discuss the next steps in the process. For example, is more research needed, should we implement the solution or is the approach is unworkable?

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One thought on “Does Iterative Development Stifle Innovation?

  1. Good points, Keil. And maybe the biggest thing is that the lack of innovation I sometimes see is just caused by teams becoming stuck in a rut. Thanks for your post.

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