Innovation ALWAYS Demands We Change the Rules

How do you feel about the proposition:

“Innovation can bring benefits if and ONLY if it diminishes a limitation”

Let’s examine this proposition. Do you agree with it? Don’t be too hasty in coming to agree with it. Once we agree, you’re hooked! So, let me explain a little more, starting with some definitions:


We’re talking here about all kinds of innovations. Not just tech innovations (new materials, new languages and tools, new industrial processes, new scientific discoveries) but other innovations too (new ways of doing things, new ways of structuring and managing organisations, new ways of developing products and software, plus many others).


What do we mean by “limitation”? A limitation here is anything that restricts us from getting our needs met to the maximum possible extent. (And btw that maximum is, itself, a limitation).

Limitations can be “recognised” (for example, a speed limit on a motorway) or unrecognised (for example the physical speed limit for a given curve, with a given vehicle, in specific road conditions).

Examining the Proposition

So, back to the proposition: “Innovation can bring benefits if and ONLY if it diminishes a limitation.”

Do you agree?

We were alive and functioning even before the innovation became available. Correct? It must be, then, that long before the new innovation, we developed modes of operation, modes of behaviour, policies, rules, to accommodate the limitation. I’ll refer to all these as simply “rules”.

We were able to operate. Rather than run smack into the limitation and die. That’s obvious.

Before the innovation, we created certain rules to cope with the limitation (recognised or unrecognised, known to us or unknown).

Suppose, then that we make a very good job of implementing an innovation, and thereby diminish the associated limitation totally. Still, the question is:

What benefits will any innovation bring, if we neglect to change the rules? The rules that helped us to accommodate the limitation, before the innovation was available? What benefits will we see if we neglect to change the rules?

Do you start to see the answer?

The Old Rules Block Any Benefits

What benefits will we see if we neglect to change the rules? Basically, no benefits. None. Why? Because as long as we obey the old rules – the rules that were there to bypass the limitation – for as long as we obey these rules, for all practical purposes we will continue to behave as if the limitation is still there.

Can it be that we’re so stupid that we continue to adhere to our old rules, the rules we originally invented to bypass or cope with the limitation? You know the answer.

This is what is happening every day, for the vast majority of organisations, and for the vast majority of innovations they adopt. For a long time after adopting the innovation we still obey the old rules. And because of this, for a long time we don’t get any of the real benefits from our investment in the innovation.

Four Not So Frequently Asked Question

So, how might we proceed if we need to ensure that innovations really do bring us the promised bottom-line benefits? We might choose to ask ourselves the following sequence of four questions:

Q1: What is the POWER of the innovation? (Just ask the inventors, they’ll be more than glad to explain, and explain, and explain…).

Q2: What limitation does this innovation diminish? (We must find a specific and precise answer, here).

Q3: What existing rules served to help us accommodate that limitation (i.e. what obsoleted rules we must get rid of)? Here we can for the first time evaluate the tangible bottom-line benefits from removing those old rules). (Note: As long as the old rules remain in force, we will never see the promised benefits from the innovation). Ch1 11:10

Q4: What (new) rules must we use now (in place of the old rules which the innovation has obsoleted)?

Let me give you an example. Let’s take Agile Software Development as our innovation.

Q1: What is the POWER of Agile Software Development?
A1: Agile Software Development increases the likelihood that we’re developing software that meets our customers’ real needs.

Q2: What limitation does Agile Software Development diminish?
A2:  Risk of misunderstanding customers’ real needs, both now and as they evolve.

Q3: What existing rules served to help us accommodate that limitation?
A3: Contractual terms. Big up-front specifications. Rigorous plan-driven project management. Change control. Specific duration projects. Formal V&V.  One-off or infrequent release into production.

Q4: What (new) rules must we use now?
A4: Development and delivery as experiments. Short, tight feedback loops. Constant collaboration between customers and developers. Constantly evolving specifications and solutions. Multiple “stop/continue” checkpoints. Incremental and frequent release into production.

Try It For Yourself

Here’s some other innovations we see introduced in e.g. software development organisations. Try running through the above four questions for one or more items on this list:

  • Teams / team-based development.
  • Obeya (big-room).
  • TPDS (Toyota Product Development System).
  • Lean Product Development.
  • Cost of Delay.
  • Flow.
  • Pyton, ELM, or some other new language or tool you may be considering adopting.
  • Self-organisation / self-management.
  • Servant Leadership.
  • Holacracy.
  • Serious Play.
  • Continuous Improvement.
  • [Your own favourite innovation].

We Must Change the Rules

“Human beings cannot progress unless somehow they do things differently today from the way they did them yesterday.”

~ Shigeo Shingo

So now we can see that the real effort we must make is NOT in adopting new innovations, but in changing the rules. And these rules are manifest in the assumptions-in-action, the collective mindset, the culture, of an organisation. This, btw, is the central message of Rightshifting and the Marshall Model.

– Bob

Further Reading

Beyond the Goal ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt (Audiobook only)

Learn Through Delivering

In my previous post I talked a little about the role of language and vocabulary in shifting focus – from being busy, to attending to folks’ needs. The word ‘deliverable’ emphasises, unsurprisingly, delivery. But what does it mean to “deliver” in the context of i.e. software development?

Inspect and Adapt

For me, delivery is the opportunity to close the feedback loop. To gain some insight into whether what we’ve been working on has been useful to our stakeholders. And to adjust our sights – and ways of doing things – in the light of that information.  So the defining aspect of any and all “deliverables” is that deliverables, by this definition, must be delivered to stakeholders and they must be able to try them out in as near as possible to real-world situations so as to provide meaningful feedback.


Just how often might we deliver something for our stakeholders to provide feedback on? That depends on how short we want our feedback loops to be. Myself, I prefer a maximum feedback loop length of two to three days. Whether your teams are in a position to dance to this rhythm, or something slower, kind of depends on your stakeholders and how quickly they can look at, and respond to, each delivery. Keeping deliveries small can help here, by keeping what they have to look at, and their responses, small too.


Of course, there will be things we create, produce – things for our own consumption, like documents, design artefacts, intermediate transformations leading to deliverables, and so on. I choose to call these non-deliverables “artefacts” (or even “non-deliverables”) – to distinguish them from the deliverables on which we intend to seek feedback.

May I invite you to trial a change of perspective – from learning through doing, to learning through delivering – as soon as you have the opportunity?

– Bob


The Future Of Software-Intensive Product Development

A little while ago I wrote a post posing some questions about what ways of working we might look to, After Agile. Fewer folks engaged with this post compared to some others I have written. So I’m assuming that few are thinking about what we might see as the natural – or even unnatural – successor to Agile.

It is, however, a topic that occupies me regularly. Not least because of the intrinsic flaws in the whole Agile idea. We can, and eventually must, do much better.

Recently, some folks have been asking me about what I see as the future for software- and software-intensive product development (SIPD). Of course, I’ve been answering this question, on and off, for at least the past few years.

In a Nutshell

To sum up my take: In a nutshell, the issues that plague SIPD seem obvious. They’re mostly the same issues that plague all forms of collaborative knowledge work. Issues compounded by the gulf between conventional or traditional work and the new world of work (i.e. the world of collaborative knowledge work) – a new world distinctly unfamiliar to most in the world of work today.

We are faced with various collections of pathogenic beliefs (management, traditional business, Agile, etc.), none of which provide us with a context for EFFECTIVELY tackling the challenges we face in the new world of work – i.e. the world of collaborative knowledge work.

I’m choosing here to list these challenges in terms of needs, and in terms of the strategies – conventional and unconventional – for meeting those needs.

Developers’ Needs

Agile came into being driven by developers attempting to see their needs better met. These include:

  • Less working time “wasted” on mindless bureaucracy and distractions, such as meetings, reports, documentation, etc..
  • More time to focus on making great software, and stuff that delights customers.
  • Improved relationships with co-workers, business folks, customers, and the like.
  • More flexibility to adapt to emerging information, to changing needs, and to things learned along the way.
  • More say in what they work on, the tools they work with, and how they do their work.
  • Approval of one’s peers (including a sense of belonging and community re: the “technical” tribe)
  • And simply, the leeway to just “do a better job” and make a positive difference in the world.

Bottom line: Many developers need to feel valued, purposeful, that they’re making progress (learning) and are recognised for their abilities.

Business Folks’ Needs

Secondarily, but still important in the Agile approach, is better outcomes for “the business”. Agilists have come to recognise the following needs (even though common forms of Agile do not address them).

  • Approval of one’s peers (including a sense of belonging and community re: the “management” tribe).
  • Empathy (meaningful connection with other human beings).
  • A positive self-image.
  • Stability (folks have families to support).
  • Acclaim/fame (folks have careers to pursue).
  • Warmth (of human relationships) – Most business folks are just normal people, too.
  • Peace (i.e. an absence of distress).
  • Purpose.

Users’ / Customers’ Needs

Businesses ultimately stand or fall on revenues. Revenues which depend on their products and services meeting the needs of their customers. These needs include:

  • Approval of one’s peers (including a sense of belonging and community re: the “brand” or “XYZ customer” tribe).
  • A positive self-image (what being a user or owner of a certain product says about you, in your own mind).
  • Stability (folks don’t like to think too hard, or continually learn new stuff for no good reason).
  • Warmth (of human relationships) – Most customers, being humans, value interactions with other human beings.
  • Low fuss (i.e. being able to get their jobs done with minimal distress).

Shareholders’ Needs

Shareholders also have needs which they seek to get met. These include:

  • Approval of one’s peers (including a sense of belonging and community re: the “investor” tribe).
  • Contribution to society (e.g. ethical investments) and communities.
  • Financial returns (investors have families and/or lifestyles to support).

In a future post I’ll be looking at the strategies that people use to get these needs met, including those strategies implicit in Agile methods – and some alternative strategies that might prove

– Bob


The Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work


Here’s an excerpt (pp 206) from “Birth Of the Chaordic Age” by Dee Hock, about “an odd project management scheme” they adopted in the early days – circa 1974:

“Swiftly, self-organisation emerged. An entire wall became a pinboard with every remaining day calendared across the top. Someone grabbed an unwashed coffee cup and suspended it on a long piece of string pinned to the current date. Every element of work to be done was listed on scraps of paper with the required completion date and the name of the person who had accepted the work. Anyone could revise the elements, adding tasks or revising dates, providing they coordinated with others affected. Everyone, at any time, could see the picture emerge and evolve. They could see how the whole depended on their work, and how their work was connected to every other part of the effort. Groups constantly assembled in front of the board as need and inclination arose, discussing and deciding in continuous flow; then dissolving as needs were met. As each task was completed its scrap of paper would be removed. Each day, the cup and string moved inexorably ahead.”

I’m struck by the similarities with FlowChain, and as with FlowChain, it seems an exemplar of simplicity and flow. I also note the implicit “Advice Process” vibe, and the emphasis on “making the work visible” (Cf Personal Kanban).

– Bob

Further Reading

The Twelfth Principle

There are four values and twelve principles connected with the Agile Manifesto. As the folks at 12thPrinciple say,

“the four values and eleven of the twelve Agile principles do not address the wider organization at all.”

This is one of the key reasons why so many Agile adoptions (circa 80%) fail to deliver on the Agile promise.

I have this weeks added my name to the list of signatories at  Not because I totally and wholeheartedly embrace the “Twelfth Principle” in its current form. But because I wish to lend support to the idea that it’s the wider organisational context that utterly determines whether any kind of progressive change effort or initiative succeeds or fails.

The Twelfth Principle (n.b. actually appearing fifth in the list of Principles behind the Agile Manifesto) reads:

“Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.”

I see some basic flaws in this, but it does serve to highlight (at least, implicitly) the role of the wider organisation.

Here’s my take on these “flaws”:

  • Projects. I see little point in using projects to frame development efforts. Personally, I subscribe to #NoProjects, and FlowChain as a practical means to replace the whole idea of projects, in favour of product development flow.
  • Individuals. Yes, teams consist of individuals. But Man is a social animal, and collaborative knowledge work – such as software and product development requires society, not individuals. I get the idea that we’re really taking about a focus on people, here. As opposed to say structure, hierarchy, process, or what have you.
  • Give. Not so much give as in charity or largesse, but give as in make available, enable.
  • Them. Shades of them and us? Unfortunate choice of pronoun.

With a free hand, and the awesome benefit of hindsight, I might represent this principle thusly:

“We accept that collaborative knowledge-work proceeds best when we place people at the core of our focus.
We recognise that people do best within a supportive environment,
where needs are shared and attended to by all.”

How might you rephrase this principle?

– Bob



The Organisational Psychotherapy Approach To Agile Coaching


What’s the point of an Agile Coach? I guess the most common answer would be “to make development teams more productive”. After all, Agile Coaches cost money, and they don’t do much in the way of development work themselves. If they’re not a “force multiplier” for one or more dev teams, then where’s the cost-benefit justification?

Personally, I’d suggest the most common reason, although rarely articulated as such, is “to raise the pace of improvement”. Or, worst case, to reduce the pace of degradation of performance (given that things are always changing, and some teams may not be able to even keep abreast of change).

There are two essential problems with seeing the appointment of an Agile Coach as a means to improve a development team’s productivity: The Motivation Fallacy and the Local Optimisation Fallacy.

The Motivation Fallacy

Many development teams have little to no manifest interest in improving, nor therefore in the pace of any improvement. This is often compounded or aggravated by the appointment (a.k.a. imposition) of a coach to “encourage” them. An iron first of coercion, even in a velvet glove of a smiling, happy coach, often offends. And rarely is the agenda for improvement part of any joined-up initiative. Much more often it occurs at the behest of one or two people looking to secure their personal bonus or make a name for themselves as innovative go-getters. Such personal agendas also serves to alienate people further, both the folks in the development teams and those folks up-stream and downstream on whose cooperation any joined-up approach would depend.

The Local Optimisation Fallacy

Unless the development team is the current constraint limiting the throughput of the whole organisation, improving the team’s productivity has little to zero effect on the productivity of the whole organisation. Some authorities on the subject go further and suggest that in these (non-bottleneck) cases, improving the team’s productivity will actually make the performance of the organisation as a whole worse. (Cf. Ackoff)

Even when the development team IS the current bottleneck, improving it soon moves that bottleneck elsewhere in the organisation. Agile Coaches and other folks in the development function rarely have the remit or authority to follow that moving constraint. And so rarely if ever does the improvement initiative continue in the newly-constraining area of the business.

Where Organisational Psychotherapy Comes In

Both of the aforementioned fallacies arise in organisations with low levels of congruence. Such organisations have a gulf between how they perceive themselves (self-image), their ideal self, and how they actually experience life. To paraphrase Carl Rogers:

“Organisations behave as they do because of the way they perceive themselves and their situation.”

Where an organisation’s self-image and actual experience are consistent or very similar, a state of congruence exists. Rarely, if ever, does a total state of congruence exist; all organisations experience a certain amount of incongruence.

Organisational therapy serves to help willing organisations reduce the gulf between their self-image and their actual experience. In other words, to improve congruence. Agile Coaches could do this, given the brief (remit) and skills – and some of the more effective ones likely do already. Albeit intuitively rather than with an explicit understand of what’s happening. Oh so rarely is this remit conferred, or sought, however.

The practical side to Roger’s Theory of Self states that being in a condition of incongruence is uncomfortable; therefore each organisation seeks to become more congruent. When the distance between the self-image and actual experience becomes too great, the organisation is more likely to exhibit both distress and anxiety. Likewise the people within it.

Thus organisational therapy helps to:

  • Increase congruence.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety levels.
  • Broadly improve cognitive function (through e.g. lower levels of stress and anxiety).
  • Indirectly, address a wide range of pathogenic beliefs, which in turn may lead to…
    • Improved motivation.
    • Increased collaboration across silos.
    • More joined-up initiatives (fewer local optimisations).

The Therapist’s Stance

All the above is predicated on the Agile Coach – if indeed it is he or she who becomes the agent in this kind of intervention – adopting more of a therapist’s stance:


– Bob


A Deliberate Approach

“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.”

~ Napoleon Bonaparte

In response to your kind questions and comments regarding my previous post, I mentioned that I would be writing a post to address some of those questions and comments. This is not that post (I’m still in the middle of that).

In the meantime, and hopefully to preserve some sense of momentum, might I invite you to advise me on your feelings about approaching the journey ahead (e.g. building a thing we may come to refer to as a community of principle) with a modicum of deliberate intention? Specifically, it has been my habit to follow an approach evolved over many years for this sort of thing. Presently this bears the name “Javelin”. There’s a paper on Javelin which you might care to read. Please accept my apologies in advance for labelling it a process, and for its anachronisms.

In a nutshell, the approach entails, at its heart:

  • Choosing a name, for easy referencing of “this thing which we have come together to build/grow” (Name).
  • Discussing our various perspectives re: our (common) purpose, leading to a Statement of Purpose.
  • Listing key stakeholders and their respective needs (what they say they need, not what we’d like them to need).

The approach aims to address a bunch of risks inherent in this kind of endeavour, including the risk of spending precious time and effort on building the wrong thing(s).

Put another way, what’s the minimum amount of structure that will serve us in approaching our joint endeavour?

How does this sit with you? What advice can you offer me? Upon receipt of this advice I will be better placed to decide whether this kind of  approach might fly, and what else to do instead or in addition.

– Bob

Further Reading

Our Javelin Process ~ Bob Marshall


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