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Chapter 3

Enabling App Innovation

Take risks

The best way to kill innovation is to avoid risk. New, creative ideas can only flourish if the organizational mindset allows taking risks, and sometimes failing. Doing something new is inherently risky; as it’s not been done before, there is no guarantee of a certain outcome.

There is even a distinct possibility of failure; a new idea might just not work. However, trying something new can also lead to breakthrough inventions and financial gains. And even failures can teach valuable lessons that can be applied in subsequent projects.

Enabling innovation requires embracing the inherent risk that comes from trying new things. This can be very difficult for commercial organizations, where predictability and calculated Return On Investment (ROI) are often valued highly, and where failure is seen as a negative. It is however of vital importance to understand that trying something new means it cannot always be predicted and calculated beforehand. It might even fail. Setting up your organization to allow such initiatives is an important step towards fostering innovation.

Another innovation killer many commercial organizations have to deal with is what I like to call temporal nearsightedness. Short-term results are prioritized over longer-term results. If an organization invests in something today, results better be seen tomorrow.

However, innovative ideas might not yield results today, it might take a considerable amount of time before they start to pay off. While there is a healthy balance to be found between short term and long term results, focusing purely on short term results can kill projects and ideas that might deliver great value in the long run.

Circling back to App Innovation, a combination of a healthy risk appetite and patience can empower people to try that new technology they aren’t yet sure of, but that might be a gamechanger when it matures. Or to attempt improving a piece of software without being sure it will work.

Grant ownership and agency

Having to go through endless red tape and formal processes, each created by departments with their own opinions and requirements, can smother any innovative project. Such processes usually try to limit risks, and establish requirements to project outcomes, exactly the opposite of what is needed to enable innovation.

A large administrative burden can also have moral effects; the sheer amount of effort required to get something new done outweighs the enthusiasm and drive employees have to work on innovation. That is why it is important that those people expected to deliver innovation, are empowered to do so. Giving them ownership over their work, and agency to guide what they do and how they do it, is another important factor in enabling innovation to take place.

Give people the opportunity to experiment

Though this might change in coming years with the rise of AI systems, for now creative thinking is the domain of people. These people need some conditions met before they can even think of coming up with innovative ideas and creative solutions. It is up to the organization to empower its people to be able to innovate.

First of all, people need time, on an individual level. This might be a no-brainer, but people who are swamped with work tend to not have time to experiment. Someone who is all caught up in fixing production incidents or readying new features before the fast-approaching end of a sprint is not going to sit back and contemplate “what if….”.

They will also probably not have the time to investigate some interesting new technology that was just released, or to take a critical look at a process they have heard a lot of complaints about. All these activities only happen if time is reserved for creative and innovative thinking and problem solving.

Next to time, people also need access to a space containing the tools they need to create new ideas and experiment with them. An example could be a physical space; a well-placed whiteboard can be one of the best investments an organization can make. However, this place does not have to be a physical space, it needs to be an environment where resources (e.g. technical tooling, software, data) and knowledge (training, knowledge bases) are available for use. For App Innovation, access to new technologies, software, and hardware are necessary.