Preparing an Organization to be Innovative – Agile Feng Shui

[Guest Post: Paul Boos serves as the software maintenance lead for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP).  His team currently uses Kanban and Scrum to maintain the OPP legacy code base.  Prior to that he implemented Scrum as the Branch Chief for the National Development Branch within USDA/Rural Development. Follow him on twitter: @paul_boos]

So far in the “Feng Shui” series, we have explored the persona charactieristics we want to instill in our people and the values we want in our teams.  The goal though is to cultivate an organizational culture for innovation.  Innovation can happen at the team level (and usually does), but it won’t be sustainable without support for the organization.  In this post, we’ll discuss how organizations can ensure that this sustainable innovation can exist.  We’ll start with…

3 Traits of an Innovative Organization

Once we realize that innovation is about unlocking the power of the teams and the individuals on them to think and act creatively, we need to further cultivate traits within the organization to help foster the sustainability.  Organization in this sense is somewhat a synonym for both the structure of the organization and the management culture that pervades it.


The first trait is one that directly helps teams; Servant Leadership.  Teams will undoubtedly come across issues that are bigger than themselves.  These issues will then get elevated up and outside of the team and it will be up to that management to resolve them; either by assisting the team in some manner or handling it for them.  Management must take on the ownership of handling the issue and become servants to the team.  This allows team growth in capacity and builds loyalty.

Management must also develop a culture of ownership for ideas; this is done by increasing the authority and responsibility of individuals and teams within the organization.  All organizations will intrinsically set boundaries on what an individual or team can or cannot do, but for innovation to flourish, it is increasingly important to push decision-making to the level responsible for needed action.  This will inspire teams to experiment, finding out what works or doesn’t work.  The connection to innovation should be relatively obvious; if ownership of an idea and the decisions around it are taken away, then people won’t bother to innovate.

Management also needs to develop mechanisms to increase collaboration between various disciplines. 

A key component for this is establishing cross-functional structures within the organization.  These could be ad-hoc workgroups or more formal structures within the organization, but unless people and even teams collaborate with others new ideas won’t get fostered.  Several articles promote squirreling away a team developing an innovation from interference by others.  While this is perhaps works for developing a single innovation, it won’t sustain an innovative culture as it is the unique combinations of ideas across disciplines that provide innovation after innovation to the organization.  Whether the innovations are large or small are immaterial, these will come about by thinking differently about what could be.  Inspiration usually comes about when applying some idea or concept from one discipline to another and when turned to action innovation springs forth.

We’ll close this piece by examining the Feng Shui for these three organizational elements.  The number three carries the energy of creativity, family, and self-expression.  Think of recognized innovative organizations for a moment; Apple, Google, NASA of the 60s, Toyota, The Wright Brothers, Amazon,..  Each of them appears to exude this energy.

Once you have an organization that has put in place all that has been presented thus far, innovation will naturally begin to happen.  This innovation can take on two forms and organizations need to learn to embrace both of them as both are needed.


Kaizen - Continuous Improvement... or kicking ass 🙂

The first is Kaizen, the Japanese word meaning continuous improvement.  Small innovations will continually improve the current products and services or their delivery.  These small innovations will help the organization its effectiveness.  This is evolutionary change…


The second form is Kaikaku.  This is disruptive change; this form comes about when the problem is thought about in an entirely different way.  This is the new product or service or the dramatic change that makes delivery more effective. Recognizing and acting upon radical change is more difficult for organizations and of course not every innovative idea will succeed, but not attempting to pursue these will cause the organization to stagnate.  Embracing and taking action on these larger innovative ideas will leap the organization forward.  This is revolutionary change…

The energy behind the number 2 is balance, choice, and cooperation.  These Feng Shui attributes may seem a little less obvious at this point, but by choosing to pursue continuous improvement while leveraging disruptive changes inspires more innovation.  This balanced recognition that both must exist will help people cooperate with one another in developing and refining innovations.

In my last installment in this series, I am going to discuss how these get tied together…

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