How Agile organisations cultivate innovation

The best ideas rarely come from behind a door marked 'Innovation Department'.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Sep 2018

There’s a tension at the heart of every mature company. Short term success depends on doing what you’ve always done, just marginally better, but survival in the long term demands far more imagination.  In a world that changes so quickly, only the truly innovative survive. If you’re not embracing new ideas, new technologies, new products and new models at pace, then you can guarantee some competitor will.

It’s tempting to put your ‘blue sky thinkers’ behind a door with a budget and let them envisage the future, while the rest of your employees get on with making widgets and paying the bills. Constant change is distracting and on some level psychologically discomforting – the combination of human nature and bureaucratic inertia makes it very hard not to veer towards the safe and familiar.

Indeed, this is why the likes of Harvard professor John Kotter advocate companies essentially giving birth to their own successors – autonomous, high growth ventures that exist outside the corporate mothership.

But this idea denies to the organisation the immense potential for innovation that its rank and file employees have. They do have ideas, if you’ll let them. Think of Esther Glickstein, the 21-year old secretary who came up with the name Big Mac for McDonald’s new burger in 1967, when the best the company brass and its team of highly remunerated ad men could come up with was ‘The Aristocrat’.   

Agile businesses are set up to harness precisely this kind of everyday genius, by building the systems and culture that allow good ideas to come from anywhere. This is not a straightforward thing to do. You can’t just tell people to be open to new ideas and then to communicate those ideas freely, any more than you can tell a manager to listen to ideas that aren’t their own.

Instead, Agile organisations cultivate innovation using a tried and tested framework that has produced some of the most successful businesses in corporate history.

Flat structures. Layers become barriers when you have to go through them.  By flattening structures, agile organisations are able to facilitate the transmission of ideas from bottom to top and back again. This flatness also makes it easier for everyone to be aligned around the company’s purpose, strategy and core objectives.

Empowerment.  With everyone on the same page, Agile firms devolve power to those closest to the action. A key element in making this work is assembling small, cross-functional teams that between them have the necessary understanding of the problem and skills to solve it. This has the effect of breaking down the vertical silos that impede collaboration in cumbersome bureaucracies.   

Iterative development. Agile involves testing ideas quickly, determining whether they are viable and then rapidly incorporating real-world feedback to improve them. The idea is not to waste time with a drawing board, trying to come up with the perfect innovation, but rather making innovation a normal part of what you do.  

All this enables businesses to try new ideas at speed, but more importantly to have more and better ideas – and not to waste resources on the unsuccessful ones. This is more important now than it’s ever been. Technology has accelerated the speed at which a great idea can have an impact, across all sectors. If you don’t have those ideas or you can’t get them ready in time, you will surely be overtaken by those that can.

To hear real-life examples of how firms have implemented the agile framework to unleash the innovation of their employees, come to the Agile Business Conference in London, September 26-27. Using the code MTREADER15 for 15% off. .