February 28, 2006
Innovation vs ideas

Interesting conversation with John Kao about innovation. He repeats one of the classics: Ideas are cheap. It's what happens after the idea that's valuable.

It's odd reading if you come from a "small teams/agile teams"-type software culture, since so many of the ideas described are second nature in that kind of environment (I'll happily grant that this is a relatively new thing - and the interview goes back 6 years)
Here are some of the things Kao almost says that apply in software

  • You want it around you - all the time - All of the really productive periods in my software life has been when I have been in a small, competent team, close together, undisturbed and equipped with several good-sized whiteboards - essentially the perfect innovation medium. People to bounce ideas off of and when the people aren't enough you can integrate the whitebord in your idea bouncing process.
    Not having a sufficient number of whiteboards where you sit and work just blows. Lately cam-phones have gotten sufficiently good that you can take whiteboard sessions with you after the end of a meeting - but you always lose something in the translation
  • Build and iterate - Don't sit around mulling over your idea. Designing stuff is about building it and see how it feels/works. Since the autumn of 2002 my team has done in excess of 250 point releases of our product. That's about 1.5 releases per week year. I'm not talking test builds either but actual updates of a production system. If it sounds excessive it's really not. When the team runs like it's supposed to you should be able to make meaningful feature complete additions to the product every day or second day. Releasing stuff as soon as possible and getting fast feedback and then iterating is a really satisfying way to move a product forward. And you get to do stuff for your users all the time as well which is good karma also.
  • More people => less ideas - You can't really do anything reasonable in a group of more than 3-4 people and actually it works best if there's one guy with as much of the full vision as possible. Team work is still essential. That one guy may not have all the skills to turn the vision into something real or he may simple need to bounce his idea off other people - but less people go further.
  • Leave it alone - this is more a personal feeling than a recognized best practice. The best work I have been part of has been 100% inner spark and 0% management prodding. It makes for a happier work day, and a better end result. Come up with some general plan for where you want to go and just trust the people doing the work. Do even more: Actively protect them from other people trying to tell them what to do.
    It's all about keeping the process open. When you're being managed you're doing what you're told. When you're coming up with the stuff you're free to dream of better ideas than the one you had yesterday. It just works better.

Posted by Claus at February 28, 2006 02:30 AM | TrackBack (0)
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