Is #Innovation an Empty Word?

Many times on projects and presentations I hear both the empty words and principles and also the full words. I’ve always struggled to determine the difference between the two. I’ve listened to people state that their success is all about ‘their people’ and I’ve come away on one occasion believing them and on another occasion feeling that they didn’t believe their own words.

So what is the difference?

A phrase used by Ed Catmull in his book “Creativity, Inc.” defines the issue perfectly.

The Handle and the Suitcase

It is up to the individual to remember that it’s okay to use the handle, just as long as you don’t forget the suitcase.”  -Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.

Ed Catmull shares a visual in his new book, Creativity Inc. where he asks us to imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads. He describes the handle of that suitcase as those defining principles and phrases we use and promote.  He then shares how, the suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from the struggle.

To me this affirms that one cannot promote and encourage without context. And that context can really only be gathered through experience and commitment. In a sense the person needs to be a practitioner and supporter. In many cases I was probably sensing that people I didn’t believe didn’t have the context or the suitcase in what they were presenting.

Catmull shows the disconnect that can happen.  Too often, we grab the handle and – without realizing it – walk off without the suitcase.  What’s more we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind.  After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.

This is key. If you aren’t committed to the entire principle, the suitcase is the first to go. As Catmull says, the handle is easy to carry by itself. This is happening recently with Innovation. People promote Innovation and then discuss how organizations can inject structure into the Innovation process. These methods or structures most of the time are the antithesis of Innovation. Methods and structures can go against an Innovation Mindset.

Catmull then continues to what I think is a brilliant way to restate the issue: “I often say that managers of creative enterprises must hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions. What does this mean? It means that we must be open to having our goals change as we learn new information or are surprised by things we thought we knew but didn’t. As long as our intentions – our values – remain constant, our goals can shift as needed”

So saying we are committed to Innovation is hollow. Saying we are committed to the values of creativity and growth and empowerment and having a culture that encourages those will generate many more Innovations than an Innovation framework. Our commitment to values is critical, not a commitment to a framework.


Or as Catmull adds, words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless.  Managers scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting a new terminology, thinking that using fresh words will bring them closer to their goals.”





When #Lean isn’t enough – #novel

We all know about Lean. At least most of us do. We need to Lean our processes and organizations. We need to make them more efficient and less wasteful. But the problem is that Lean is only for incremental improvements. Given an existing process, how can we make it 5%, 10% more efficient? But the problem is that many opportunities for business aren’t just about incremental improvements in processes, we need to develop the new opportunities and products. Does Lean help with this? Absolutely not.

So what are we to do?

Novel Innovations

It is all about Innovation Games and Empathy Maps. With these tools and methods we can actually build customer engagement and try to develop Novel Innovations. With Novel Innovation we can discover new innovation that deliver new markets and services. No longer are we talking about 5%-10%. Now we are taking with total green-field opportunities that can offer 100%-200% growth. We are suddenly moved from a discussion of cost cutting to growth.

So how do we move from Lean to Novel? By changing our focus from internal to external. Instead of looking internally on how we can help to improve the internal working, lets look externally and see what the clients actually want and will pay for. No longer can we just look internally, incremental improvements are not enough.

If you aren’t looking at your customers. your competitors are.

I can’t stress this enough. Innovation is not an internal exercise. Many innovation frameworks look internally and discuss how to propose and gather innovation feedback internally. Without the involvement of the client and the building of client empathy, it is an unfocused effort that is not likely to succeed.


Read Innovation Games. Learn how to build Customer Engagement and Empathy.These methods will highlighted Novel approaches that will change your business and create the next generation of the business.

Why Customer #Empathy ?

Why should we bother with Customer Empathy? Many time we have seen the results. Either you deal with Customer Empathy or you deal with Customer Anger. It is much more efficient to deal with Customer Empathy when you define an offering than dealing with Customer Anger to fix the offering.

Sadly, most the time Information Technology initiatives are based in what we as Information Technology professionals think the customers want. At best, we have Information Technology empathy – we understand what Information Technology values.

Information Technology Empathy

So what happens when we have Information Technology Empathy? One might suggest that we can improve the cost side of the equation. Perhaps if we have Information Technology Empathy, we can reduce cost and become more efficient. Sadly, many times having Information Technology Empathy may not reduce costs. We may pursue Information Technology goals that may increase costs. And then the customers doubly suffer – we expend budget that makes their lives worse. 😦

Many times this happens with Package Implementations. Software Packages are chosen to reduce risk from the Information Technology point of view. (Information Technology Empathy) Frequently the new Software Package reduces the value delivered to customers. Very rarely do you hear about customers extolling the virtues of the new Software Package – at best you hope the Customers don’t lose functionality.

Customer Empathy

Only with Customer Empathy can we improve the revenue side of the equation. If we truly understand what the customer values, we can design new products and services that they are willing to pay more for. Strangely enough, Customer Empathy will also allow us to improve the cost side of the equation. By knowing what the customer values, we can also understand what costs the clients will accept and potentially which areas could be trimmed without affecting customer value.


Many times we see plans being put in place assuming we know what the customer values. There almost seems to be a hesitation to ask the customers what they want. In this fast-paced world with so many options, be warned. If you aren’t going to ask your customers what they want, someone else will.

Four Information Technology Roles over time #agile #innovation

As I was evaluating the current role of Information Technology in our Industry I looked back and it seemed to be that there have been four distinct roles that Information Technology has played with business over the years

    1) Recording and Reporting 

This role focused mainly on Risk Mitigation. In the early years of computing, there was great value to be gleaned by entering data in a consistent way and minimizing errors. There was also great value realized by then having all the data in one location that could then be reported on to provide key indicators for the health of the business.

Information Technology implemented systems to record the current state or what ‘IS’.

    2) Automation

Soon after Information Technology had implemented solutions to help in Recording and Reporting, focus turned to larger problems like:

1) Automation of workflows/larger processes

2) Scalability

3) Efficiency

4) Availability

I often refer to this as the golden age of computing as we turned the power of the computer to problems that were much easier to scale and make more efficient using a computer rather than adding more people. The benefits were also realized in many workflow projects where Information Technology assisted people in guiding what they were supposed to do in the workflow process. In this phase, the increased computing power was also brought to the forefront to provide processing power that was only dreamed about 5 years ago.

In this phase, Information Technology implemented systems to take business beyond ‘IS’ and towards what business ‘COULD’ do with automation.

    3) Agile

With the Agile Manifesto, Information Technology ushered in the new phase of Agile projects. Now we were focusing not only on the outcomes of the projects, but also HOW the projects were being executed to maximize value. This was done through reducing Cycle Time, Maximizing Client Engagement, and through Visual Project Management.

In this phase, Information Technology implemented project processes that showed how projects should be run.

These first three phases focused on improvement, refinement, assisting the business to get better. We are now on the cusp of the fourth phase where Information Technology helps the business grow.

    4) Innovation

There is much talk about Innovation and how people must innovate, but it remains somewhat elusive. What is clear is that Information Technology has a role to play in helping clients Innovate.

Information Technology is uniquely position to leverage visual tools like Innovation Games, Empathy Maps, Business Model Canvas to provide business the brutal visibility that Information Technology provided previously about the projects in the Agile phase. What is clear is that the trend that Agile started toward visual requirements must continue. Specifications have improved from Specification documents to Use Cases to User Stories to A Business Model Canvas. Each one more visual that the prior.

What is also clear is that asking people what they want and documenting the response in words is a very risky endeavor.

For the first time, Business Models can be captured on one sheet and what-if-analysis can be done like in the first spreadsheet programs to evaluate options and alternatives.

In this phase, Information Technology is analyzing and recommending business processes that show how business can grow.

We won’t just be helping companies to get better, but to be different.

Hang on… This should be fun…

#Ingeniously #Innovate and #Selflessly #Share – Robertson Screwdriver

Innovation is one of the most overused words out there. I think it can fall into the same bucket as quality. Everybody says we must be more innovative, we must innovate. But what is innovation?

Innovation (from

1. something new or different introduced: numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum.
2. the act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods.

So at the end of the day an innovation is anything new. That sounds less positive now. 😐 The one aspect that bothers me with innovation is the lack of the reason for the innovation. Innovation itself does not imply that anything is made better by innovating. Just that something new has been tried. Although this lack of reason for the change does allow for more ideas to be generated without fear of rejection, ultimately the innovation must make things better or we are changing just for the sake of change.

I think if you ask people their definition of Innovation, they would communicate that they believe innovation does imply a benefit or improvement from the current state.

 A key point here is what is creating the innovation? I believe it is the knowledge, skill and creativity of the person recommending the change. They believe that the change or innovation will result in a better product, process, or service.

Is this really then Ingenuity in addition to Innovation?

Ingenuity (from

1. the quality of being cleverly inventive or resourceful; inventiveness: a designer of great ingenuity.
2. cleverness or skillfulness of conception or design: a device of great ingenuity.
3. an ingenious contrivance or device.
We need to have Ingenious Innovations and not just innovations by themselves. Hopefully we are taking our experience and skills and using them to continue to evolve the design of our processes and products.
Case in Point – Robertson Screws
This was illustrated for me as I was watching a documentary on the Hurricane Katrina recovery. A Canadian company was going down to the 9th ward in New Orleans to help them rebuild and they brought along their own supplies as they were not sure what would be available locally. Being from Canada, they brought along Robertson screws. The work crews in New Orleans had never seen them before and wondered how they would use them. It turns out that Robertson screws are somewhat of a Canadian-thing. I wasn’t aware they were not widely used outside of Canada. Here is the link to the Wikipedia link on Robertson Screws for my non-Canadian friends.
Once the works crews used them, they wondered how they could go back to the standard screws they had been using. The Robertson screws could be put in quicker, with one hand, and were usually straighter. It is also mentioned that the screws are self-correcting due to their shape.
The Robertson screw is a great example of an Ingenious Innovation made by someone due to their experience and skill. They created a unique design that would improve the process and ultimately the product being produced. But the lesson on Ingenious Innovation did not end there. Unfortunately P.L. Robertson was so adamant to not license the screw that this prevented Henry Ford from widely using the Robertson screw in his cars. (they were only used in cars made in Canada) This limited the market for the Robertson Screw and greatly limited their use in the United States.
A not so subtle reminder that we all benefit when we Ingenious Innovate and then Selflessly Share. 

How do I encourage #innovation on my projects?

I actually think about this topic quite a bit. There is mention of innovation in almost every job ad and project charter I see. But really what is innovation? How do we innovate? How do we encourage innovation?

I think we frequently believe that innovations are large changes rather than small incremental improvements. When we think about how to innovate we get stuck on trying to find that next big idea. Or else we try to find the software tool or process no one has heard of so we can present a significant change from the current status. So we try to come up with the new idea and then revert back to the current status when the next big thing can’t be found.

Then we hear from management and others that we need to be innovative. Like we aren’t trying. 😦

I have found that two concepts help out greatly in helping to make projects more innovative.

1) Encourage the small innovations

If you encourage the small innovations in people, process, and technology, I have found that the large innovations will follow. If you analyze what is perceived as large innovations, you will actually find that they were made up of a lot of small innovations along the way. How do we encourage the small innovations? Recently I’ve reviewed incremental improvement statements with my teams to get them thinking about small improvements. The small improvement statements I reviewed on my last project were:

  1. I will strive to be a better team member tomorrow than I am today
  2. I will strive to be a better [BA/PM/DBA/Developer] tomorrow than I am today
  3. I will strive to help to make the solution better tomorrow than it was today
  4. I will strive to help to make problems, issues, and risks less tomorrow than they were today
  5. I will strive to help to provide more value to the client tomorrow than they had today
  6. I will strive to help to create better processes tomorrow than we have today

These statements have helped the team focus on continuous improvement and innovation.

2) Build a team culture of safety and confidence

If you can build a culture where people feel safe in making suggestions or recommendations and where people are confident their ideas will be heard and truly considered, I firmly believe you will get more ideas and ultimately more innovation. I think frequently people limit the innovations they bring forward because they feel they might be blamed if the innovation has unintended consequences. (or they may be criticized for an incomplete idea) In addition, people want to be sure that the idea will be seriously considered if they are going to put the time in to develop the idea or innovation.

To accomplish this, I try to do two distinct things:

I) Abide by the Agile Prime Directive

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

–Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews

I absolutely love the Agile Prime Directive as it removes blame and us versus them thinking from the project. It sets the stage for people to feel comfortable in raising ideas and suggestions without the fear of initial criticism and blame somewhere down the road. It also places the onus on the individuals to hear their team mate’s ideas without being critical off the bat. It places the emphasis on “seek to understand” rather than “seek to find fault”.

II) Let the team innovate

This sounds like obvious common sense not worth mentioning. Let me explain. Many teams that have a perceived lack of innovation share the same structure. There are a few leaders that ‘approve’ the innovations that will be implemented and they expect their team members to submit their innovations for approval. This very structure stifles the innovative process. How can the few leaders at the top have the same wealth of ideas and domain knowledge as all the members of the team to evaluate what is a good innovation? Anytime there is an approval process, you can be sure there is not going to be much innovation.

“As a leader, you don’t need to be convinced or believe in every innovation, you just need to believe in your team.”

Many times, you may believe that the innovation may not work. But you again need to trust your team. Otherwise, the team will get a sense of what ideas you are likely to approve and only raise those ideas to your attention. And before you know it you are only getting one person’s idea of innovation from a team of many. And then in the Project Retrospective we will bemoan the lack of innovation.

The team doesn’t submit ideas or innovations for approval, they just inform as to what innovations or ideas they are currently implementing.

But won’t you have constant change? Yes and No. Yes, you will have a lot of change and change that you could not have foreseen. But isn’t that the point of innovation? But if you set expectation and the entire team has a shared vision of success and the ultimate solution, the team itself will determine when it can innovate and when it should not.

The team understands that the project still needs to live up to the client expectations, but how the team meets the expectations should be up to the team to decide. We need to manage by destination rather than by route. The team will determine the best route to take.


I have combined the small improvement statements and Agile Prime Directive into something I have termed the Team Member Manifesto on my recent team. So far the amount of ideas and innovations have been very high.

#Innovation Debt and the Four Fences of Software Development

I was looking for a new picture for the Blog and I thought about an interesting Blog post. As you can see now, I chose the image of a gate after much searching on various image search engines. (let me tell you there are some very interesting people out there with cameras.) 🙂

Gates and Fences

I chose a gate as I think it is a very interesting analogy that can be used in the Software Development industry. In the Agile community we are so focused on tearing down fences that we have to be careful we don’t use the remnants of the Waterfall Fence to build the Agile Methodology fence. I loved the analogy of a gate in conjunction with the fences. We need to ensure that every fence we build also has at least one gate. The fences exist for the purpose of providing structure and restrictions for predictability, but there always needs to at least one way to break free when the situation calls for it.  (hopefully multiple gates)

I thought of 4 separate fences that are quite common in the Software Development industry. They are:

1. Process Fence : Gate leads to greater value

I’ve alluded to this fence already. As I have mentioned, we in the Agile space need to be extremely careful that we don’t construct an Agile fence out of the broken boards of the Waterfall fence. If we start being equally as stringent and demanding, we are equally doomed to failure. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Agile practices are a great fit for the vast majority of projects and an improved over the Waterfall methodology. But we need to be careful that we don’t start to be overly prescriptive and cookie-cutter. It would be incorrect to say all Software Development projects require pair-programming, two-week iterations, and daily stand ups. Just like it was incorrect to say all Software Development Projects required Functional Specifications, Work Breakdown Structures, and Use Cases. Do these Agile practices fit better than Waterfall practices? Usually. But the team still needs to determine what practices best apply and to what extent.

Sometimes you have to open the gate and incorporate all the different practices that deliver the most value to your client. It is likely that these practices will be from many different methodologies. Can an Agile project benefit from a Work Breakdown Structure? It is possible.

2. Technology/Vendor Fence : Gate leads to better solutions

A second fence we can find ourselves in is this Technology or Vendor fence. This is the fence that we typically build around the technology we use and the vendor for that technology. We typically built these fences for very good reasons. Simply put we are more familiar with the technology we use the most and we there just isn’t enough time to learn all of the technologies that are out there. There are just simply too many. So what can we do?

I think similar to the Agile principle about trying one new thing every iteration, Software Development technical professionals should try one new technology every project. (preferably from different vendors) If the project doesn’t allow for this, then we should as Software Development professionals commit to reading one new book and playing with one new technology in our own time for every new project.

If we don’t do this continuous learning and strive to open the gate in the technology fence, how do we know we are providing the client the best solution? Of course we can’t know all technologies, but isn’t it our professional responsibility to know more than one group of them?

3. People/Employer : Gate leads to enhanced knowledge and competencies

The third fence is the people or employer fence. This fence is very similar to the last fence except that it deals with people instead of technology. It is very natural to again build a natural affinity to the people we primarily work with. But it is also important to realize that one company can’t be perfect in everything. (just like one person can’t be the best at everything) We all have our strengths and weaknesses both individually and corporate-wide.

Some of the most valuable lessons learned I have had over the years has been when I have worked with people from other companies and they have shared with me their practices and methods. Now those of us who have worked for a company for a longer duration obviously believe our company has more strengths than weaknesses. (I know this is something I believe 100% about Protegra.)

That said, I look forward to being able to work with new Protegrans and with new partners and clients because I know I am going to learn new things and be the better for it. Opening the gate in the People and Employee fence is one of the most rewarding.

4. Experience/Safety : Gate leads to innovation

The fourth fence is one we build ourselves and it is something I’ve noticed more in myself as I’ve gained experience. I think sometimes when we have gathered more experience, it is easier to just do what we have done before. Developing using a known process, technology or team is the safe route and something we feel more comfortable with. The decision between introducing new items and doing what has been done before is a fine line as we can’t take on too many new things and risk the project, but if we don’t take on any new items we are building what I like to term Innovation Debt.

Like Technical Debt, it is sitting there and charging interest. Innovation Debt will also needs to be paid sooner or later and it is better to pay it off bit by bit on projects rather that having a large payment at the end. The real problem is that too much Innovation Debt can result in a compromised company that is passed by their competitors. Too much innovation on projects can result in compromised projects. It is a very fine line to walk.

But not opening the Experience gate is actually more damaging that opening it. It is just a little unnerving at first and requires an atmosphere at work that encourages innovation and rewards fast failure.


Those are the four fences and gates that I try to keep in mind as I go about my projects. Does anyone know of any more?