Agile innovation

Science of Productivity Ep 004: Does Agile Make Your Team More Innovative?

August 24, 2020

The agile project management methodology, originating among software developers in earnest in the early 2000s, has increasingly crossed into other industries as teams and companies look for ways to keep up with the constant pace of change. Despite its popularity, few have done rigorous research to determine if agile fulfills on its promise of greater innovation.

In this fourth Science of Productivity segment, CEO Matt Plummer unpacks research from Harvard Business School on the impact of using agile. The Science of Productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how to accomplish your goals faster. It is part of the Anything But Idle productivity news podcast.

This segment is part of the second episode of Anything But Idle: G Suite Gmail Is Getting a Major Productivity Upgrade, and Other Productivity News posted on July 27, 2020.

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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

The science of productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how accomplish your goals faster. In this week’s segment, I want to share new research on whether agile methods increase or decrease team innovation.

Agile methodologies emerged in the 1970s to facilitate more adaptive and iterative ways of developing software. After getting its more formal roots in 2001 when a group of developers met in Utah to discuss these more lightweight project management approaches, agile has become the go-to project management approach for software development and increasingly other fields primarily because it is thought to improve the agility of teams, enabling them to be more innovative and to waste less time on work that ultimately will be irrelevant.  As Jeff Sutherland, one of the co-creators of Agile said, “Innovation is what agile is all about…Companies that create an environment in which agile flourishes find that teams can churn out innovations faster.”

However, emerging research from Harvard Business School professors Sourobh Ghosh and Andy Wu suggest that agile has a mixed effect on innovation. Ghosh and Wu embedded an experiment within a hackathon software development competition at Google. They found that teams using Agile scored higher on one dimension of innovation – value – but lower on the other dimension of innovation – novelty. Teams using Agile created more valuable, but less novel products.

Specifically, two Agile practices drive an increase in value and decrease in novelty: taking time to define and update team goals and a high frequency of meetings.

Novelty comes from allowing individuals to think differently from each other and then to bring their creative ideas back to the team, but frequent coordination-focused meetings prevent this from happening. Teams may need to rotate between periods of high-frequency, coordination meetings and lower frequency meetings to produce more innovative ideas.


Iterative Coordination and Innovation.” Ghosh, Sourobh and Wu, Andy. Harvard Business School Working Papers (Jun 2020).