Interview with Scott W. Ambler

Innovation is certainly central to long term success of any organisation, and fostering the culture of innovation is a real challenge.

In our recent discussion with Scott W. Ambler we explored how culture of innovation can be developed. He also shared his thoughts on 20 years Agile, and what according to him is ‘Innovation’.

Let’s read;

Q1. How do you summarise 20 years of Agile?

Scott: Percentage-wise I think that there has been far more “agile in name only” than actual agile, but overall we’re certainly seeing more teams working in an agile manner in practice. Most of this is due to the “dumbing down” of agile, particularly resulting from the multitude of agile certification schemes where people are effectively buying certifications instead of earning them. The desire of leadership for “standard” prescriptive agile processes is certainly causing significant harm as well as this is unrealistic in practice – every team is unique and therefore needs to develop their own unique way of working (WoW).  “Owning your process,” or choosing your WoW, has been a fundamental concept in agile from the very beginning but to do so requires both mindset and skill.

Q2. What is more difficult among these two – a) Transitioning an organisation to Agile or b) Transitioning an individual to Agile? Please explain.

Scott: Clearly a) because to do A you also need to do B for all of the people involved.  A is always hard, B will vary based on the individual – some people are very eager and open to agile ways of thinking and working whereas others will fight you tool and nail.

Q3. How can an organisation keep innovating without affecting productivity?

Scott: Yes, I have seen that happen. The challenge is one of understanding the overall value stream lifecycle.  In An Executive Guide to Disciplined Agile we work through the McKinsey 3-Horizon Model of Growth to explain this. Innovation occurs, a lot, at horizon 3 where you experiment with and explore new offering (product or service) ideas.  At horizon 2, where you flesh out the value stream around an offering, you still innovate but at a more granular level as you home in on how you can make money serving your customers. Once a value stream enters horizon 1, where it’s mature and running at scale, then innovation is very granular at the feature/function level.

Q4. How can organisations develop a culture of innovation, and keep their employees motivated for the same?

Scott: Innovation requires an experimentation mindset, something that is very difficult in organizations where there is a project-based mindset, a quarterly results mindset, or a “predictability” mindset.  If you want to develop a innovation culture I think you need to start by taking an experimentation-based approach to the way that you work. We’ve certainly seen experimentation-based approaches work well when it comes to process improvement, the DevOps movement as well as the Lean movement before it as clear examples of that.  We’ve also seen experimentation-based strategies work well for new product development, something that Lean Startup popularized.

As far as keeping people motivated, that will vary by person.  I would hope that with intellectual workers they are motivated by learning and mastering their craft, and clearly being given the autonomy to experiment is a key aspect of enabling that.

Q5. What is ‘Innovation’ as per your experience?

Scott: Innovation is iteratively experimenting with, and then acting on what you’ve learned about, new ideas.  These ideas may pertain to your WoW or to the product or service that you’re providing to customers. Some innovations will be successful, some will not.  So focus on what works and move away from what doesn’t.

Q6. To the uninitiated, what is Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD)? Please share two major challenges of organisations that DAD can address.

Scott: First, DAD embraces the complexity that we face as software developers, or more accurately solution developers, so that a team can optimize our way of working (WoW). It takes the mystery out of agile by showing how it all fits together and by making your options explicit.  Second, DAD shows you how to choose, streamline, and evolve your WoW to address the context that you face. Every team is unique and every team faces a unique situation – therefore they need to be allowed to choose their WoW. DAD does this by walking you through the issues you need to think about, your options to address those issues, and the tradeoffs associated with each option.  Teams are making these process-related decisions implicitly already, our experience is the teams that make these decisions explicitly are more successful in practice.

Q7. One advice to the newbies to be Agile, and stay Agile. 

Scott: You need to both “be agile,” to have an agile mindset, and to “do agile,” to have the skills to get the job done. You may focus on mindset at first, but over time you’ll spend most of your effort honing and improving your skills.


Scott is the Chief Scientist at Disciplined Agile, Inc. He works with organizations around the world to help them to adopt agile and lean strategies across the enterprise. He provides training, coaching, and mentoring in disciplined agile and lean strategies at both the project and organizational level. Scott is the (co)-creator of the Disciplined Agile (DA) framework as well as the Agile Modeling (AM) and Agile Data (AD) methodologies. He is the (co-)author of several books, including Choose Your WoW!, An Executive’s Guide to the Disciplined Agile Framework, Refactoring Databases, Agile Modeling, Agile Database Techniques, and The Object Primer 3 rd Edition.

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