Enabling a Culture of Innovation in Software Development

September 16, 2015

There exists two types of innovation: top down and bottom up. Top down describes a corporate initiative, where business value has likely already been predicted. Often it comes in the form of a solution which should be implemented, rather than an innovation. Innovation is, importantly, defined as a new idea. Innovation is not a product itself, or a reimplemented existing function. In contrast, bottom up innovation describes idea generation from the bottom of the food chain. This includes developers, employees and customers.

There is a lot of discussion around which method is better and how useful each are in practice. It is important to realise how effective top down and bottom up can be when used together. Instead of limiting idea generation to only the top down resources (such as managers and technology officers), every developer and every employee can input ideas into the business. These ideas are then fed up to the top, where customer data and insights are used to filter and align the ideas to fit with the innovation goals of the wider business. In the next step, successful ideas are planned into the roadmap allowing them to be fed back down to developers and customers. This creates a closed feedback loop, where both the strengths of top down and bottom up can be taken advantage of.

In practice, disjointed innovation (without a closed feedback loop) results in two forms of output. Top down produces planned innovation, where a new feature or product is requested by the top, planned out, and then has some resources assigned to it to be implemented. Bottom up results in cultural innovation where ideas, research and prototypes come from developers and employees, influenced greatly by their passion and interest in the product and industry. Motivation for cultural innovation can be significantly reduced by a lack of confidence in how valued ideas are by the other parts of the business, in particular the people at the top. This can cause an anti-innovation culture where a lack of recognition causes a loss of interest in idea generation. The principle of a closed feedback loop is to prevent leaks like these having a negative impact.

There is no one person responsible for maintaining a culture for innovation, but if everyone plays a part in the loop, it will grow, as long as two requirements are met:

  1. The bottom up people have a suitable platform for idea generation. It should be:
    1. Able to track feature suggestions, ideas and problems (which may require some innovative solution).
    2. Accessible and easy to use by anyone in the business, across the whole business.
    3. Maintainable, where no ideas are lost in the platform. It is important that everyone feels ideas do not go unrecognised.
  2. The top down people have the resources and necessary information to effectively filter the ideas according to customer and business goals.

Innovation is something many technology companies rely on. To keep up motivation, Amazon gives out prizes to the most well thought out but otherwise failed idea. This promotes the idea that innovation is not just about being able to successfully implemenent your idea in a product, but to be able to think up and plan new ideas successfully. Furthermore, Amazon ensures that the business focusses on bottom up innovation by restricting those prizes only to ideas that were implemented without getting “permission” to go ahead and try them out. This prize incentive helps to make sure the loop flows the correct way from bottom to top.

The idea of “permission” to innovate is something that developers can struggle with. To truly enable a free and innovative culture, people must not feel like they need to request permission to work on a new innovation. Spotify aims to let developers spend 10% of their time innovating, while LateRooms.com offers Friday afternoons to freely work on new ideas. Another cultural requirement for innovation is around the idea of failure. Ideas that fail should be celebrated and not punished. Accepting failures alone is not enough, and instead they should be positively celebrated for the value that can be learned from them. Spotify’s solution is to have a failure board where tasks that have not gone to plan are on show for the whole team.

It is difficult to shift and maintain any cultural aspect of an organisation, but with the right things in place, the passion and initiative of all employees can be used as the seed to enable and grow a culture of innovation.

#References Bottom-up Innovation: Insights, Ideas and Innovation (http://www.triz-journal.com/innovation-tools-tactics/innovation-culture/bottom-innovation-insights-ideas-innovation/)

Failure & Cake: A Guide to Spotify’s Psychology of Success (http://blog.idonethis.com/spotify-growth-mindset/)


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