Innovation on Agile Teams, Part One: 20% Time

Innovation is the holy grail of our time. Everyone from corporate heads to business magazines to President Obama touts innovation as a must-have for economic growth and competitiveness.20-Percent-Man

The management guru Peter Drucker wrote,

Innovation is the specific function of entrepreneurship, whether in an existing business, a public service institution, or a new venture started by a lone individual in the family kitchen. It is the means by which the entrepreneur either creates new wealth-producing resources or endows existing resources with enhanced potential for creating wealth.

So, how should agile and lean teams contribute to innovation efforts?

Teams can certainly assist their organizations with process innovation. Through continuous improvement via the retrospective, agile and lean teams can arrive at better and better processes that reduce waste, or improve revenue and speed. Another opportunity is product innovation, where product ideas can emerge from the team and can be selected by management for further experimentation and business viability.

Either way, an interesting technique to spark bottom-up innovation is 20% time.  20% time is an informal innovation technique popularized by Google and, within the product development industry, agile software tools vendor Atlassian. The basic idea is to create some slack in our busy work schedules through a formal process. As Tom De Marco proposed in his eponymous book, introducing slack can help teams reduce sub-optimization and increase innovation and speed.

At the recently concluded Agile Development Practices West Conference, I had the pleasure of chatting with Penny W., a QA lead from Atlassian. Penny shared her insights about their 20% technique:

In my next post, I’ll share more thoughts about innovation on agile teams. In the meantime, enjoy Penny’s thoughts on innovation via 20% time!

Questions?