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Using Kanban to Innovate

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Patrick Steyaert talked about lean innovation with Kanban at the Lean Kanban Benelux 2015 and Lean Kanban Central Europe 2015 conferences. InfoQ interviewed him about the main obstacles to innovation, how discovery Kanban can be used to manage innovation, how you can develop talent for innovation, and asked him for examples of using Kanban with a business model canvas or lean canvas or other thinking tools.

InfoQ: What do you see as the main obstacles to innovation?

Steyaert: Organizations are caught in a trap between the threat of disruption and global competition. They are pressured to continue to excel at execution and at the same time become a seasoned innovator. For many, (internal) change is not going fast enough. The result is a complex mess of problems. Many organizations experience change fatigue. Often, this is because change is treated as episodic and the organization has already undergone many cycles of change, not always with success. Some organizations resort to isolating innovation in separate organizational units or incubators. They often find that innovations developed in isolation cannot be integrated back easily into the day-to-day operation, missing out on any synergies between new and existing business. Because of the pressure to innovate and compete in a rapidly changing environment, products and services that do not meet quality expectations are put on the market. Because of inertia, the organization is not able to properly respond to external changes (that may or may not threaten the organization). People become overstressed and disengaged. Ideas turn into ideologies and there is limited capability to constructively face contradicting and deviating ideas.

InfoQ: Can you explain what Discovery Kanban is?

Steyaert: Most people that are familiar with Kanban in knowledge work associate Kanban with the management of "execution". It is seen as a way to bring flow, positive change and direction in the execution of work (such as software or product development). Discovery Kanban systems, however, are aggregations of Kanban systems that cover both execution and innovation; asserting that flow, positive change and direction are important in innovation as well. Typical Discovery Kanban systems include Kanban systems for inbound flow (knowing what to execute before executing); outbound flow (executing), decision making (making and interpreting observations), learning (through experimentation) and growth (creating future options).

Discovery Kanban is a system for (un-)guided discovery and a pragmatic approach to change that strives to be safe, authentic and integrative. Change needs to be safe for the organization as well as for the people and their careers. Leadership needs to be able to be authentic in the sense that there is an alignment between thinking and action (or saying and doing). There needs to be room for constructive tension between opposing ideas (not in the least the opposing ideas between innovation and execution).

InfoQ: Can you share your thoughts on managing innovation? Is it possible?

Steyaert: Yes, you can have ideas - even very strong ideas - about how to manage innovation (e.g. lean startup, effectuation, three horizons of innovation, just to name a few). But – and this is crucial - ideas about how to manage innovation should never turn into ideologies. Surprise is the key to innovation so you always need to be mindful to novelty, both novelty in what you are doing (e.g. the business that you are building) as well as novelty in how you are doing it (e.g. how you are innovating).

Especially for innovation it is important to remain authentic. John Boyd, the inventor of the OODA loop and a great thinker about how to operate in a world of unfolding events, said that if you take his teaching as dogma, you should run outside and burn his material … immediately.

This can be very confusing for both traditional organizations as well as start-ups. It means that you need to have strong opinions about how to manage innovation, but these opinions should be loosely held. In the quest for innovation we often see that one dogma about how to organize and manage is replaced by a new dogma. In terms of innovation, any advantage that can be gained by that can only be a temporary advantage.

InfoQ: Any suggestion how you can develop talent for innovation?

Steyaert: Often people speak of innovation as part of the DNA of an organization. This gives the impression that innovation is a given thing; you either "have it" or you don’t. Sometimes it is associated with one type of organizations (e.g. startups) or a part of the organization (e.g. innovation colony). We see innovation talent as a set of capabilities that can (and should) be developed. By focusing on capabilities - that include rapid learning, fast decision cycles, end-to-end flow, mindful deviation, and anticipatory awareness - innovation talent is chopped up in smaller "talents" that each can be developed in your organization.

Looking at innovation as a set of capabilities that can be developed opens up new, and to our opinion, exciting possibilities. In many cases, for example, innovation is confined to a specific part of the organization (e.g. to the innovation colony) because innovation and execution are considered incompatible. From a capabilities standpoint, this is completely wrong. It is our experience that developing innovation capabilities (such as rapid learning) actually improves execution capabilities. Witness of this is the success of organizations that have developed continuous improvement (a rapid learning capability) as a core capability in their execution.

InfoQ: Can you give an example how you can use Kanban with a business model canvas or lean canvas or other thinking tools?

Steyaert: Business model canvas (from which lean canvas is derived, see e.g. Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers, Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur) is a strategic tool that is used by startups and businesses that want to innovate their business model. It is a concise visualization of the key elements of a business model. What customer segments do we target? What is our value proposition? Who are our key partners? It is used as a tool to describe and challenge assumptions that are made.

The business model canvas records a (set of) hypothesis about the business that you intent to develop. It is based on observations that you have made in the past and will form the basis for the experiments that you will do in the future. The business model canvas is a snapshot of your thinking at a particular moment in time.

Discovery Kanban shows you the flow of your thinking as it is taking place and helps you with collaborating to interpret the observations that will inform your hypothesis of your future business model and record the experiments that you do to validate these hypothesis. Kanban paints a broader picture; not just learning but also the execution (and how that fits into the learning) and growth (providing a context for learning and execution). In that sense Kanban and business model or lean canvas are pretty complementary.

Next to business model or lean canvas there are other "tools" that can be used complementary to Discovery Kanban. We often use A3 thinking tools, for example. Just like the Business Model canvas it allows you to visually reflect on a problem and how to solve it. Often it is used in the context of continuous improvement (See e.g. Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process, John Shook ). We use it in a context of continuous innovation; reflecting on a business problem and how to solve it. Just like with the business model canvas, the A3 is a snapshot of your thinking about the business problem under consideration; Discovery Kanban shows the flow of your thinking as it is taking place.

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