Beyond the Agile Programmer: Innovative Teams

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the Midwest UX conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was incredibly happy to see AIS sponsor the event. While we work hand-in-hand with some great design teams for projects like the Vogue Archive and Rolling Stone Archive, getting directly involved in the UX/UI community is part of our attempt to bring this knowledge and experience in-house. (More on that to come!)

Choosing sessions at a conference is rarely easy, but I knew immediately which session would start my day. Without any hesitation, I headed for Building a Design Culture by Brad Colbow, the awesome Illustrator and comic. Brad presented at CodeMash earlier in the year and he easily lived up to my expectations.

In this session, Brad described his experiences as a designer engaged to build a great user experience in the context of a broader team.  I was interested to see how Brad’s thoughts and experiences as a representative of the design community overlapped with those of the Agile community which has composed mostly of programmers.  I wasn’t disappointed.

The Execution Gap

Maybe it’s the lack of even a single artistic bone in my body, but the word design suggests innovation; the creation of something new and exciting. Having personally worked with some amazing software designers and design firms, I relish the anticipation that comes with endless possibility and unbridled imagination.

I’ve also experienced the drudgery of endless implementation, sheen-dulling corner cutting and pride-killing Who Moved My Cheese reviews. After months of hard work, the excitement of the filled a kickoff gathering has given way to finger pointing and, at times, ship jumping.

It would seem that the challenge is not innovative ideas, but the execution of those ideas. 

Execution is everything. ~ Robert Jordan

Brad is quite well known and respected for his design and artistic talents. No doubt he brings a lot to the table for a team or organization looking to bring a great experience to products.  For this reason I find it quite telling (and entertaining) when he describes the engagement process like so:


While Brad and his team may hand over pure gold, without his skill and eye on the in-flight product, the result is often a not-so-happy rendition. The gap, he points out, is engagement with those executing his designs in the medium of code.  No doubt customers have a similar response when their ideas don’t quite live up to the gloss of a SOWs or project proposal.

But how can we avoid such a letdown? How can we avoid the deterioration of our vision over time?

How does Scrum enable a culture of Innovation?

Scrum Teams are Cross Functional

Brad was quite open and honest in saying he does not have the answer. Instead, he shared his experiences. He’s found that the interests and practices of those championing Agile in these same organizations are in alignment with his own.

In Scrum, we explicitly call out the need for a cross-functional team. Scrum’s “Development Team consists of professionals who do the work of delivering a potentially
releasable Increment of ‘Done’ product at the end of each Sprint.” (Read more) This is often in contrast to organizational structures based on skillset.

Scrum Sprints are a Safety Zone

In his 2005 A Survey of Organizational Creativity, Wayne Morris of New Zealand found that two of the top three Factors that facilitate or enhance organizational creativity are 1) Time, and 2) Space/resources to pursue ideas. Creativity, a necessary ingredient to innovation, demands space. Space to experiment, learn, fail, and refine. Space in time, environment, and pressure.

Scrum maintains the Sprint to act as both as risk mitigation and a safe zone for creativity. Within this timebox the Development Team has full freedom and authority to attack a problem or goal with all its ingenuity knowing that at the end of the Sprint they must have a working product to demonstrate. Interesting that this simple concept can provide safe space, while also limiting the months of unproductive spin seen on traditional projects.

Create Your Culture of Innovative

By providing clear goals to teams composed of the skills necessary to bring a product to market, providing sufficient space to execute, and inspecting the actual, functioning results at regular intervals we can build a culture of sustained delivery and innovation.

What would happen at your organization if you put together a team with Marketing, Programmer, Designer, and Sales all represented, and gave them a goal of delivering a working increment of software in 30 days which solved a profitable need? It’s quite possible in fact.