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Wednesday, 21 May 2008 at

What can Agile process provide to investors in innovation?

The idea of using an Agile approach to investing in innovation is nothing new. The BBC Innovation Labs have been doing this for many years through providing single iteration support to those with an interesting idea. The BBC invest in many companies producing a demonstrable first version of their idea before deciding to invest further. This approach massively reduces the BBC's risk as they are able to see both whether the idea has legs once it becomes demonstrable and if the development team are up to the job.

This use of single iteration development terms is used as a way of selling Agile development by providing massively reduced investment risk through only committing to a single iteration while delivering working code. This means that at the end of the iteration the buyer can take the code to another development team if they so wish. In the case of the Innovation Labs it is likely that the BBC would retain some degree of exploitation rights to the IP should they wish to take a good idea that was badly realised to another team.

The fact that Agile is so effective at marrying formalised project and product development management with creative and innovative process means that this is a no brainer for those that have worked in this way. Having talked to a number of investment organisations recently, it appears that Agile offers another potentially useful tool in addition to monitoring progress that can be tied to investment rounds as used by the BBC. This is effective communication.

The process of using stories and prioritisation enables the investor to see exactly what decisions are being made and to interrogate the rational behind prioritisation. If an investor takes part in the transition from iteration to iteration they have a clear picture of what is going on and are able to feel sure that their money is being spent realistically. The investor will also able to see the progress being made through the presentation of demonstrable tested development. This provides clear windows for investor communication while leaving the innovator free to get on with their work during actual iterations.

Therefore Agile's embracing and normalisation of constant change and risk (essential ingredients of innovation) combined with a process that effectively exposes this makes it a perfect process for allowing a better relationship between investors and innovators.

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The Innovation Edge

The Innovation Edge, Nesta's 18 monthly conference, took place on 20th May 2008 at the Festival Hall. Jonathan Kestenbaum, Nesta's Cheif Executive, was determined to show just how far the organisation has moved on under his stewardship by reflecting on the difference between this gathering and the last one at The Business Design Centre in Islington in 2006, shortly after he took the reigns. I am not in a position to comment on whether Nesta is a very different beast to its previous incarnation, but if the key note speakers on show are anything to go on then they certainly seem to have moved up a league.

The key note session was chaired by Jonathan Freedland and began with Jonathan interviewing none other than Sir Tim Burners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web. Sir Tim appeared every bit the modest unassuming and selfless socially motivated scientist that you one might expect from the person who invented arguably the most important innovation since the industrial revolution. He jokingly reminisced how his initial proposal to create the www was described by his manager at CERN as being 'vague but interesting' and how he was only able to work on it in down time between his important work.

Sir Tim was followed by Bob Geldof (no hyper link required) who stole the show with a witty, invigorating and critical speech that seamlessly bridged the conference theme of sustaining UK innovation with a call to arms on how innovation can do so much more to help people in Africa work their way out of poverty. He made the point that Europe should do more to use its innovation capital to help Africa. He reflected despite the fact Africa lies just 8 miles off the southern coast of Spain and Europe remains the richest continent in the world, China is investing so much more in Africa that European nations.

The afternoon began in similar big hitter style with none other than Gordon Brown providing 10 minutes of surprisingly relaxed informal comment and even a couple of jokes in support of UK innovation.

If Nesta is able to become as good as the speakers on show in effecting positive change and sustaining innovation then they really will have moved a long way in the last 18 months. I look forward to seeing how they appear in another 18 months time.

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Monday, 28 April 2008 at

No cappuccino required: how to develop functional peer to peer networks for rural creative businesses

One of the key challenges facing those charged with supporting the development and sustainability of rural creative businesses is how to achieve the benefits of the urban creative business clusters in the rural setting? Urban creative clustering provides a range of formal and informal benefits that include access to new business opportunities, the provision of support services, access to networks and collaboration opportunities.

A key quality of these clusters is prolific peer to peer activity. So much important interaction takes place in the pub or coffee shop. The ease at which a marketing and sales transactions can take place at a moments notice over a cappuccino in Hoxton is something that is difficult to reproduce in the rural setting. This is reflected by the fact that a common characteristic of many rural creative businesses is that the individuals involved were once located in urban environments and continue to work with, and invest time in sustaining the relationships they built up during their urban pasts (including periods of study).

One of the benefits provided by these urban peer to peer transactions is the way that the small or micro creative business can enjoy a bolt-on effect in which they can get business development outcomes with no investment made other than half an hour and the cost of the coffee. The cost of achieving the same outcome to the rural creative business can be much higher. It includes investing in constant networking activity just to keep up the level of visibility that often comes for free for businesses within urban clusters. The added time commitment and travel expenses that must be invested for such activity alone should not be under estimated, particularly given the speculative and potentially high risk nature of such activity. In the rural setting these additional costs become prohibitive.

To reduce this increased cost and risk it is essential that rural creative business development and support agencies consider the nature and characteristics of successful and sustained peer to peer interactions, regardless of whether they take place in the rural or urban environment:
  1. They are peer to peer collaborations (e.g they do not involve a hired in expert that imparts wisdom and knowledge)
  2. They are outcome orientated (e.g "lets meet for coffee to discuss a pitch I have been asked to respond to that you may want to come in on")
  3. They have a co-dependence nature to them in which one party needs that bolt-on capacity, skills, knowledge or contacts provided by the other party
  4. There is a clear business imperative and benefit to both parties underpinning the interaction
Therefore if those involved in supporting and developing rural creative business want to go some way towards making up for the lack of peer to peer access common to the urban cluster and reduce the risk factor when considering new models for developing these networks they should treat these 4 characteristics as requirements. If such activity can not achieve collaborative peer to peer relationships that are genuinely co-dependant, outcome orientated and address genuine business need for both parties then they are probably a waste of time and money. There will be a range of different ways that this challenge can be addressed but cappuccino is not required.

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Thursday, 27 September 2007 at

There has to be a better way of getting software developed

Why is it that many people have had painful experiences of procuring software? You would think this should be a wonderful opportunity to engage in creativity and innovation, to learn something new and see some of your ideas become realised in ways you could not quite imagine. But the reality turns out to be completely frustrating. You don't get what you want or what you were promised, you get it late, over budget and it never works properly. Then you find out that what you just paid said web tech company many thousands of pounds for is available for free on the internet anyway!

The fact is that paying for software development at a time when technology is moving so fast will always be a risky business. Ironically, despite the painful stories and battle scars of those that have had bad experiences of software development procurement, much of the problem can be put down to the processes that are used. If you are paying for development then the perception is that you want to know what it is you are getting before you sign a contract. Therefore you work with your supplier to develop and agree a list of functional requirements. These are costed and their development is plotted on a some kind of time-line with milestones, deliverables and so on. Then you press the go button and in theory everything works out as planned. Or, as is more likely the case you end up cutting requirements like crazy to make deadlines, getting half-baked functions that kind of work but not really as you had hopped and the rest is history.

So if this Agile malarkey is so great then what could it do to this process?

Agile provides the software purchaser with a suite of methods that can help them get what they want, when they want it and on budget. However, for this to work it requires a potentially seismic step outside of the comfort zone of a tight requirement list and schedule into a space where creative thinking and constant change are embraced jointly by the supplier and the supplied in order that everyone gets what they want. The supplied gets great software and the supplier gets to make some money and you are still on talking terms at the end of the project.

This works by the supplied selecting who they work with on the basis of who they want to work with because they understand the problems faced in the environment the software is required for, have an attitude and approach that gives you confidence that they can deliver really good code and can talk to you in a language you understand. 'Ahhhh', I hear you say, 'but we do that and still things end up pear shaped'. Yes, but despite having these feelings towards said developers, you also probably made them sign up to a fixed set of requirements and specifications and a tight and rigid development schedule so you were asking them to work with a big fixed design up front and a deliverables time frame that required first this, then that, then we pay, then you do this and then and then and then. And then it didn't work out like that.

If you were working in an Agile way you would be only taking one step at a time and according to a continually changing requirements list. You would be able to add, change and re-prioritise your requirements as you go so that you were always addressing the real needs of the project rather than a set of needs that made sense before you had any working code to play with. You would also be in a position to learn more about what your needs are as prioritised working functions begin to emerge rather than having to rely on very early sketchy ideas of what you imagine you will need before you really know.

Then their are stories. Agile uses narrative and dialogue between client and supplier, stakeholder and user to ensure that people really get useful stuff. Stories are much more effective than pretty pictures and technical descriptions. We can all understand them and that means that their use greatly improves communication around the project.

I could go on here. But I wont. I have been involved in enough projects that haven't gone smoothly to know that Agile makes a real difference. Given that much software development is paid for by the public purse surely it is time that those responsible for this expenditure start to look for more effective ways of working. Anyone who has been close to software projects in the public and private sector will recognise some of what I have written from their own experience so surely it is time that we innovate with process instead of using broken old fashioned approaches to software procurement that often leave everyone feeling dissatisfied?

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