How Innovation Promotes a Successful Programming Culture

March 18, 2013

By Steve Mezak

How_Innovation_Promotes_a_Successful_Programming_CultureAs I wrote in part 1 of this five part series, fostering the right kind of culture is crucial to the success of a programming or software development organization.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. It’s not like you can simply throw employees into a giant human resources Petri dish and voilà! — you’ve got a successful culture. There are lots of moving parts, lots of areas where managers can make improvements that will benefit the company over time.

Here are a few of the issues managers should consider when assessing the role of innovation within their company’s culture:
  • What level of innovation is appropriate for your company and team?
  • What is your company’s attitude toward risk-taking?

Let’s take these one at a time.

What’s Appropriate?

Innovation within a company culture is a bit of a Goldilocks prospect — ideally, you’ll find a level that’s just right. Not enough, and it means solutions may be produced that don’t live up to their potential, or solutions your customers are disappointed with. It could also indicate a lack of engagement by team members. Neither of these are hallmarks of a successful development organization.

Too much innovation, on the other hand, can bring its own problems. Believe it or not, quality can suffer since everybody may be so busy innovating that they’re not getting any actual work done. Delivery times can be compromised for the very same reason.

As a result, innovation needs to be monitored and measured carefully by the management team to arrive at a level most beneficial to the company.

The type of innovation also needs careful consideration. Geoffrey Moore, in his book “Dealing With Darwin,” breaks down innovations into four different “zones” based on the markets they serve:

  1. The product leadership zone, which applies to growth markets.
  2. The operational excellence zone, which applies to mature markets and focuses on differentiation from the supply side of the market.
  3. The customer intimacy zone, which applies to mature markets and focuses on differentiation from the demand side.
  4. The category renewal zone, which applies to declining markets.

For the purposes of a programming or development organization, innovations from the product leadership and operational excellence zones are the most relevant, although line extension innovations, grouped in the customer intimacy zone, can also be pertinent.

Innovation and Risk

Innovation necessarily involves risk-taking. From a management perspective, this begs all sorts of big-picture questions: How many resources should be devoted to the development of a new, untested product? And even if the innovation is successfully developed at a reasonable cost, will anybody buy it?

But when you’re encouraging innovation as part of a company’s culture, the considerations are different. Here, you want to reward intelligent risk-taking based more on dedication than success. That’s because a certain amount of failure is inherent in an innovative environment. It’s part of the process. Creating an environment that tolerates failure and also rewards people for their dedication toward finding innovative solutions — even if those solutions sometimes fail in the end — is increasingly being recognized as an essential element of a productive, successful organization.

Additional Information

These posts about a successful programming culture were inspired by the book Managing the Unmanagble by Lichty and Mantle. They propose 17 different elements to be considered. This is the second of five posts that cover most of them. Next post, our investigation of what it takes to create a successful programming culture will examine the elements of standards and delivery. Stay tuned.

Click here to read part 3

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