Transforming How We Work

The essence of agility is the ability to respond to new and different conditions. You cannot continue repeating the same old operating formula long beyond its utility or you will be left behind. Are you prepared to adapt to the profuse variety of new circumstances with new tactics and strategies? The principles of Agile that we examine in the next three chapter excerpts of Agile Innovation will help you understand what you need to do.

Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.
—Sun Tzu¹

Sun Tzu was the renowned fifth-century BC Chinese military strategist and philosopher who wrote the classic treatise on strategy, The Art of War. Rediscovered in the past two decades, the concepts and principles are now standard references for business students and especially for business leaders. Two examples of his insights are:

  1. Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.
  2. Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.²

A contemporary interpretation of this wisdom applied in the business context would suggest that continuous innovation is a major competitive advantage. For if you are not the leading innovator, how can you be first and freshest to the field?

Hence, are you going to repeat the same old operating formula long beyond its utility, or are you prepared to adapt to the profuse variety of new circumstances with new tactics (and strategies)?

The principles of Agile that we examine in this chapter will help you understand what you need to do.

The 12 principles of agile

The website on which the Agile Manifesto is published is a paragon of simplicity. Its home page presents the four axioms described in the previous chapter, and one of the very few links on that page takes you to the following set of 12 principles (italics added):³

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  • Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  • Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  • Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

These guiding principles are entirely logical and sensible, and in that respect it’s quite interesting that anyone ever had to write them down. They are central to the implementation of Agile Software methodology and its goal of delivering working code, and they’re also hugely useful in helping innovation teams work effectively and meet the primary goal of Agile Innovation: delivering working innovations.

Innovating is learning

Did you notice the degree to which all 12 of the Agile principles presented in the sidebar center on various manifestations of learning? This makes perfect sense, of course, because the essence of agility is precisely the ability to respond to new and different conditions, just as Sun Tzu recommends. Because the appearance of a new condition means it has not been seen before, then old, rote, or standardized rule- based procedures, by definition, may not work (that is, they probably won’t work). Hence, in a more general way it’s clear that innovation is the organized search for the better way.

This notion of adapting is central to understanding why Agile methodology is so effective and why it’s such a good model for innovators.

This notion of adapting is central to understanding why Agile methodology is so effective and why it’s such a good model for innovators. When we consider this on the scale of an entire organization, we’re talking not only about change but also about a much richer and more robust process of transformation. Hence, the title of this chapter is “Transforming How We Work,” because as an Agile Innovator this is exactly what you intend to do.

Accomplishing this will require you to discover and create an entire repertoire of behaviors that are effective at encouraging and nurturing innovation, so naturally the question arises as to what constitutes effective.

The effectiveness of a tool depends on the context in which it is used. For example, recognizing what practices will now be appropriate, figuring out new ways of working when old methods fail, and adopting new ways to maintain and even to accelerate momentum will depend on your objectives, capabilities, and constraints.

The metric of effectiveness in Agile is working code product per effort invested, which has the virtues of simplicity and immediacy. To define a comparable metric for effective innovation methodology requires some adjustments because the context and demands are slightly different.

Agile Innovation is oriented around three critical performance categories into which the 12 principles can be logically grouped:

  • Learning how to come up with truly great visionary ideas that deliver outstanding and lasting customer value, that is, transforming the process of ideation.
  • Learning how to substantiate those visions with great execution and technical excellence, that is, transforming both execution and the use of time as the critical innovation resource.
  • Translating these accomplishments into actions and attitudes that support the transformation of the culture of the organization.

Taken together, these three performance dimensions—vision, time, and action—are essential to realize the promise of Agile Innovation, and by combining them into an integrated system of management, we define a pathway to create innovative new products, services, and business models effectively. Isn’t this the goal of any well-constructed and genuinely productive innovation process? Of course.

Transforming ideation

Suppose that you’d like your organization to become the next Google, Apple, Tesla, Alibaba, WhatsApp, Facebook, or any other company that you greatly admire (and who wouldn’t?). Then you’ll definitely want to implement these two principles:

  • Customer insight must be expanded to discover unarticulated customer needs.
  • Creativity must be amplified through continuous brainstorming.

The first means that to envision truly great products and services, we have to change the way we explore, see, and think. The words are easy to say, but putting them into action requires specific types of initiatives.

The wonderful successes of design consultancies and industrial or product design firms, such as IDEO, Frog, Method, and Dyson, and the growing influence of Stanford’s (d for design) are outstanding role models. The is recognized as the world’s academic home of the method known as design thinking, an approach that’s based on the premise that enabling us to see differently is a necessary first step based on a formal and rigorous process of exploration and discovery.

Designers know that they have to do the research before they start developing design concepts.

The principles related to design are universally practiced by the best marketers and industrial designers, who know well the importance of studying intended users of the products and services they’re designing. This often involves the practices of observational field work and ethnography, which are used to detect and decode unarticulated needs, providing the basis upon which innovative products and services can be envisioned and created. Furthermore, designers know that they have to do the research before they start developing design concepts.

A wide range of companies have begun practicing these techniques, and their successes are legendary. Intel, for example, is using ethnography to study the behavior of the aging population, with the goal of identifying how technology can help people sustain their health while growing older. A Google search for “Intel ethnography” will take you to a fascinating video about this work.⁴

Intel also used ethnography to study computer users in China, reasoning quite astutely that China is an important future market for its chips. Intel’s People and Practices Research Group described itself this way:

Through the People and Practices Research (PaPR) Group, Intel has established an important and unique capability: to engage the techniques of social science and design in order develop a deep understanding of how people live and work. This knowledge is then translated into insights for guiding corporate strategy and technology development. The ultimate goal is to ensure that future Intel products satisfy people’s real world needs.

Another leading ethnographic research firm is Silicon Valley’s Point Forward. It describes its work this way:

Your customers are trying to tell you something. But they don’t tell you much directly. Participating rather than spying on people changes the whole digging process. Give them a chance to weave a story and you’ll find out more, especially about what doesn’t work in their lives. It’s the narratives that are revealing. Finding the gaps, the disconnects, the things they keep coming back to, the things that don’t exactly make sense. Learning as much from what isn’t said as what is. When the talk doesn’t match the behavior, then you really know you’re on to something.⁵

This is the art of need finding, often the first stage in a larger art of creating products that brilliantly satisfy tacit (i.e., latent or hidden) needs. Great designs often build on ethnographic analysis and insights and then shapes them into breakthrough products and services. In the process, great designs also differentiate the companies that produce them, for they inspire, provoke, validate, and entertain.

From insight to disruption

Innovation is the act of discovering new opportunities by looking beyond commonly held views, by questioning rather than accepting the limitations that conventional wisdom imposes.

There’s an often-repeated expression in American culture that says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Often when people say that, however, it’s a sign of habitualized lack of perception and ritualized behavior. In fact, the secret of innovation is to perfect the subtle art of seeing things that actually are broken even when everyone else thinks they’re just fine. This empowers you to perceive opportunities that are hidden in plain sight, and why, after something very cool is invented, many people think, “Man, that’s so simple! Why didn’t I think of it first?”

It’s precisely this ability to see deeper that differentiates innovators, and enables them to create new business opportunities that disrupt established business models. Both the fine arts and technological innovation train us to perceive in new ways, more clearly and free of convention. Painters develop a more accurate sense of color matching and resolution, sculptors develop an increased capability for spatial perception, and innovators start to see what’s broken in everything around them, and suddenly a wellspring of creativity erupts.

From such insights, great companies are born

  • Mr. Bell invented the telephone, and although the naysayers at the time did not recognize any utility in his invention, it turned out that long-distance communication really is important to people.
  • Lumberyards were doing just fine until Home Depot combined the hardware store, the appliance store, and the lumberyard and quickly came to dominate the industry.
  • The 50-cent cup of coffee was fine until Starbucks found a much better business model based on providing much higher quality cups of coffee for five dollars.
  • Local bookstores were doing pretty well until blew up the entire industry with a much better business model.
  • Nokia was the runaway cell phone leader until the iPhone was introduced.
  • Airlines were luxury businesses until the 1970s, when deregulation and Southwest Airlines came along to turn the industry upside down.

There are countless additional examples to cite, but you get the idea. So you must ask yourself, Has my industry been transformed? If so, it’s likely that until that happened, things were also just fine.

Perhaps it hasn’t happened you, and things still are just fine now. If so, watch out—the list of industries that have recently been through major disruption is long and growing, and it will eventually and inevitably include yours also:

Book selling

Hence, the more pertinent question is: “What industries are not on the list?” If you can think of one, then it’s probably ripe for disruption—and someone may be working on that right now. Perhaps that should be you.

By Langdon Morris

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity by Langdon Morris, Moses Ma, and Po Chi Wu. Copyright (c) 2014 by Innovation Labs LLC. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

Agile InnovationArticle series

Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity

Part 1: What is the story of Agile Innovation?
Part 2: Starting at Sprint Zero: A better way to innovate
Part 3: The Secret Sauce of Innovation
Part 4: Becoming Agile Rapidly and Painlessly
Part 5: Adaptability and Collaboration for Sustainable Business Growth
→ Part 6: Transforming How We Work
Part 7: Translating Unseen Needs into Innovations
Part 8: The Eight Cs of Transformational Change

About the author:

Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.


  1. Tzu, Sun. The Art of War.
  2. Tzu.
  3. Beck, Kent, Mike Beedle, Arie van Bennekum, Alistair Cockburn, WardCunningham, Martin Fowler, James Grenning et al. “The Twelve Principles of Agile Software.” Agile Alliance. February 2001. the-alliance/the-agile-manifesto/the-twelve-principles-of-agile-software/.
  4. Intel Corporation. “Healthcare and Ethnography.” Video, 3:27. 2007. http:// video.html.
  5. Point Forward. “About.” Accessed May 24, 2014. about.htm.

Photo credit: development of a businessman from