Agile Architecture Principle #7 – There is no monopoly on innovation

Note: this is one in a series of posts under the category of “agile architecture”. In an earlier post, (Six Principles of Agile Architecture) we identified six (ok, now seven) principles that we can apply to help us reason about the challenge of architecting systems of scale in an agile enterprise.

“Inertia is the residue of past innovation efforts.
Left unmanaged it consumes the resources required to fund next-generation innovation.”
—Geoffrey Moore

In an earlier principle, the bigger the system, the longer the runway, we described the need for teams to have sufficient architectural runway to be able to reliably “land” near term iterations and releases. In a sense, this is the upside of inertia enough is known from prior experience and development to allow the team to provide reliable and consistent value delivery. Indeed, with agile, we have strong technical and project management mechanisms (and some architectural runway) in place to help us stay focused to this sole purpose.

In other words, agile practices provide a disciplined, production-like ability to reliably meet commitments and to rapidly evolve a system to meet existing customer requirements. We treasure our new-found reliability as a very good thing indeed.

But there is a downside as well. If we are not careful, the “tyranny of the urgent” will cause us to keep our heads down and focused solely on near term deliverables. So where does the innovation come from in such a model? Simply, mature agilists put processes in place to assure that innovation is not solely incremental and near term.

Some of our innovation practice comes from empowering the role of the system architects as part of our advanced guard, to be constantly exploring new technologies, patterns and techniques that can help us innovate. But ours is a team-centric model, so we clearly will not rely on architects as the sole source of such innovation. In fact, the team-centric model can foster innovation at an even greater rate than that generally seen in traditional software organizations. This is because true innovators innovate at all stages of their career (entry level, junior and senior) and the team-centric model enables these folks to flourish and contribute beyond what their level of experience may otherwise imply.

One way to foster iteration at the team level is by judicious backlog management that includes spikes for refactoring, design and exploration of new ideas. This can work quite well, but even more explicit models have been put into use. For example, at Rally Software Development, where they have been building their SaaS Agile Product management solution in a highly agile fashion for four years (with rarely a missed or delayed release commitment), they have evolved to an advanced development cadence as illustrated in the figure below.

An iteration cadence that fosters innovation

Figure – An iteration and release cadence with one innovation “hackthon” per release

This figure illustrates a standard release cycle, where

i” is a standard development iteration, providing new functionality for an upcoming release

h” is a one week hardening iteration, to eliminate technical debt and assure quality requirements meet the release to manufacturing criteria

k” is a “hackathon”.

The hackathon is designed to foster innovation at the team level. The rules of the hackathon are simple: any team member can explore any technology area in any way they want, so long as there is some correlation to the company’s mission. This gives the team some mental down timeto reflect, think and experimentoutside of the everyday rigor and pressures of the iteration and release cycle.

With a model such as this, innovation is expected and programmatic, and there can be no ambiguity to the point to this (and our last!) Principle # 7 There is no monopoly on innovation.

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