Uncharted Waters

May 3 2016   9:38PM GMT

Where Has Innovation Gone

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Lean principles

Where does innovation come from, and where has it gone?

My schedule is jam packed lately. I have a nearly full time contract gig that keeps me at my desk testing software most days. After that, there is writing work to be done. That floats up and down depending on the month and what editors need. Add to that a few hunting (metaphorical) excursions each week to talk with new or existing clients about new partnerships and work. Sometimes I forget what day it is.

There is nothing I would rather be doing, but this schedule makes it hard to come up with new ideas. There is a hidden tie between lack of spare time and most modern software processes.

Agile and lean both have a special way of leeching away downtime and getting people working as efficiently as possible. Almost every agile team I have worked on goes a little something like this. In the beginning of a sprint we size the features up and figure out what can fit. We commit to those things and since most developers know estimates are a lie, there is some padding in the schedule.

Toward the end of the sprint, the padding shows itself and all of a sudden, a developer or two has some spare time. That seems like an idea time to create a new strategy to handle technical debt, or someway to better test the product during the next release, right? Nope. That time gets used up by adding one more small feature to the sprint. Just one last thing.

We got the work done and shipped new software on time (usually), but it was a humdrum process and over time we actually ended up going slower. We were so busy coping with the system forces and dealing with time pressure, no one felt like they could afford to slow down a little now for some future promise.

While we are learning about these process, the value of slack seems apparent. If something goes wrong, there is a little space built in to deal with that. If something doesn’t go wrong, the technical staff get a little time to relax and think. The business usually doesn’t see the value of slack though. It looks a lot like too much inventory sitting on a shelf not making any money.

In his book, The Myths of Innovation, Scott Burkun debunks a few ideas that we generally associate with change and innovation like the idea that the best concept wins the market, and that there is usually a lone genius toiling away in the dark coming up with the best new thoughts. Scott talks about people like Edison, Newton, Curie, and Tesla throughout the book.

Innovation is unpredictable, good ideas just seem to pop up out of thin air. But, there does seem to be a at least one common thread between the household names like Edison and Newton; time. All of these people had spare time, time not dedicated to actively working on a project, to think. We see this at Google today. Most of the ideas that Google struck gold with, GMail for example, were discovered during company imposed slack time. At one point, Google gave their employees 20% slack time to work on whatever they thought was interesting. Was it Archimedes, or Harry Potter that took a bath and had a breakthrough on a massive problem they were struggling with?

Is innovation a product of the leisure class? Something only people that can afford significant down time are capable of doing? I don’t really think that is true, but the value of taking a break is really clear.

2  Comments on this Post

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  • EBaldwin
    No that I've always believed what I'm about to write, but in my humble opinion, innovation = imagination, which in turn = identifying a problem that needs to be solved, which in turn = the mental discipline to block time to focus on solving the problem, which in turn = innovative approaches, which over time and with effort = new products or services, which provides growth, which leads back to innovation = imagination, etc. Food for thought.
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  • Justin Rohrman

    I basically agree with you, but think there is a large amount of serendipity thrown in the mix. You can't point at someone and say "new idea! now!" and expect goodness. We need time to let the mind wander to understand problems and come to a solution. That usually isn't linear. At least for me :) 
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