maturity as the enemy of innovation

As a software development organization matures, its culture institutionalizes practices that promote quality. The most obvious measures of quality are in terms of defects. The quest for lower defect counts is a noble one.

At the same time, complexity grows as the weight of larger feature sets and lofty requirements are incorporated into the software. With increasing complexity comes a larger development team. A larger team means more division of labor, higher cost of management overhead, and more careful planning to be able to utilize those resources. Division of labor requires the delegation of distinct responsibilities to specialized roles. Decision-making becomes more dispersed and distributed, and a decision will have wider impacts on team members, so good communication becomes a critical success factor.

Unfortunately, decision-making, communication, and the distribution of responsibility are never perfect. The more complex the software, the larger the team, the more distributed the responsibilities, the more specialized the roles, the higher the cost of development. This is not a scalable organizational model. Once a software organization has reached this stage of maturity, it is doomed by inefficiency. Creative individuals are no longer empowered to quickly realize their ideas. Two key requirements to motivate and nurture a creative mind are independence and freedom. The degree to which these environmental factors are blunted is the degree to which innovation is impeded.

Because decision-making is distributed among many people, it becomes impossible for innovative ideas to be realized without winning consensus. Innovative ideas are unconventional ideas. A novel approach often needs to break well-established rules and go against practices that have worked in the past. Innovation is destructive to the status quo. It must be disruptive in order to rise and overtake older practices. Innovation is the product of experimentation and risk-taking, usually resulting in failure and rework. Without an environment that encourages this, there will be no innovation.

The quest for quality through institutionalized practices and disciplined management are in many ways counter to the independence and freedom that motivate a creative mind. Careful project management and planning discourages experimentation with risky new ideas (technical, organizational, and commercial), where many unknowns make results difficult to predict. Risky ideas need experimentation so that many failed attempts can be discarded quickly, allowing successful ideas to be taken to production. Mature organizations respond to higher risk by applying stronger management practices for mitigation, thereby increasing the cost and slowing the pace of failure towards success. In fact, once management smells failure, they immediately work to eliminate it, thereby destroying its very value as a vehicle to learn what will be needed to succeed. This is how many mature organizations have killed off the entrepreneurial spirit. This is the reason why most innovative ideas come from small groups of individuals working in a garage or a small start-up company.

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