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How To Become More Agile and Innovative

It's time to move beyond the latest agility and innovation fads and institute substantive approaches. Here's how IT can get involved.

Executives are more determined than ever to make their elephant organizations dance. With increasing frequency in companies around the world, they speak of the need for "agility" and "innovation."

Even companies with a solid history of developing new products feel under pressure to show they're capable of innovating at a rapid pace. Take Procter & Gamble, which in a recent statement following its soft financial results talked about "increasing our agility, improving cost efficiencies, improving our speed to market, and relentlessly focusing on innovation in every part of our business." Perhaps this widespread urgency can be chalked up to the recent demises of Kodak, Borders, and other companies.

But applying the latest management technique is a bit like going on a fad diet. It may yield short-term improvements, but it likely won't deliver a sustainable advantage. Let's focus here on more substantive approaches and map out how IT management should respond to business needs to increase agility and innovation.

Let's start with agility. The latest agility fad is the "standing meeting," said to be a surefire way to accelerate decision-making. This approach is derived from agile software development, with its incremental delivery streams, frequent, even daily, turnarounds, and tight feedback loops. Rather than make the leap to apply agile project practices to how the business is run, instead use agile judiciously. From my experience, agile methods are best utilized when:

-- requirements, particularly user interfaces, aren't well defined or likely to be fluid.

-- a rapid turnaround or incremental delivery provide a significant market advantage.

-- the business process will be changed and improved in tandem with the system development.

A good rule of thumb for the typical IT shop is to leverage agile development for at least half of your small to midsize software projects and at least a quarter of your large projects. But remember: Agile is a build methodology, not a run methodology. Apply a mix of lean and capability maturity model (CMM) approaches to your run functions. Treat these run activities as the factory that they are (or should be). Successful run approaches emphasize process definition, metrics, robust execution, a high degree of analysis, and incremental process improvements.

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Another area where companies can substantially improve agility and time to market is management approvals. If you pull the cycle time for just about any routine company transaction (paying expenses, provisioning new servers, etc.), you'll find that management approvals take up 25% to even 40% or 50% of the total time. Why? Because most companies have myriad approval processes, all done differently, many with manual or cumbersome interfaces and incomplete information.

Reduce this oft-neglected bureaucracy by investing in an intranet manager approval page, one portal where a manager can see what requires his or her approval and either approve it directly or easily link to the appropriate page. Modern workflow systems let HR, finance, and other departments set approval (or rejection) time service-level agreements for all managers. These investments will speed up dozens of company processes affecting most employees, and set an agile pace.

Also slowing down most companies are their processes for defining system requirements. Requirements, either poorly designed at the outset or improperly constructed after multiple, elongated sessions, are a likely cause of significant defects and serious project delays. Excellent requirements management tools, such as IBM's RequisitePro and Borland's Caliber, can improve your definition time and quality. Also, work with your partners to ensure there's enough expert staff (business and technical) dedicated to timely completion of the requirements. Use proven best practices such as Rapid Requirements to gain further advantage.

Moving on to innovation, what are some of the ways that you as an IT leader can contribute?

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User Rank: Apprentice
3/2/2012 | 6:05:12 AM
re: How To Become More Agile and Innovative
Agree, the problem with most IT departments is that they are reactionary and only do something when told by the "business" (it has gone so far that IT is not part of the business). IT cannot wait for someone to hand them an idea/problem and say "do it, or tell me why we can't." As IT, at least theoretically, should be more in tune to technological innovations and new use cases in their industry, they should be bringing ideas to the lines of business and letting the lines of business shoot them down or accept them. It would also fight the stereotype, often true, that IT is just waiting for something to break so they can fix it as opposed to being proactively involved in the business. Innovation is not (per response below) only about solving known problems after they become problems, it is also about solving problems people don't know they have until you show them and creating new needs. It is like the old Henry Ford quote that if he asked his customers what they needed they would have said a faster horse.

If IT wants more budget, they have to be bringing new revenue generating or efficiency ideas to the business.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/1/2012 | 2:17:30 PM
re: How To Become More Agile and Innovative
Innovation is about solving problems (if they are going to pay off anyway). Senior Business Management need to make sure they are coming to IT with opportunities. Some may get solved or shot down because of ROI, but if the problems aren't at least discussed with IT, then IT has trouble solving it. Monthly brainstorming sessions between Business units and IT innovators should serve as a way to put forth, quickly review, and weed out good and bad ideas.
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