Agile values are (not) conducive to the innovative ability of teams


Agility is currently regarded as an all-in-one solution in companies in order to successfully master the pressure to innovate in terms of “new work” and digitization. What role do agile values play in this? Do these have a positive influence on the innovative ability of teams?

The demands on organizations in the age of globalization and digitization are becoming increasingly complex. Companies need to be highly innovative and adaptable to a rapidly changing environment. For employees, this means that innovations are no longer only important in research and development. On the contrary, in the future every department will have to think along and work on improvements (Hofert, 2016). At the same time, it becomes clear that the knowledge required to solve complex problems can no longer be found in just one area or even in one person. This makes effective cooperation in teams and their innovative ability decisive for both the present as well as the future success of the company. What conditions must be created so that teams can develop a high level of innovative strength? What role can agile values play here?

Positive factors influencing the innovative ability of teams

First of all, it is worth taking a look at relevant factors that promote the innovative ability of teams. In a large-scale meta-analysis, organizational psychologists Ute Hülsheger and Neil Anderson (2009) have devoted themselves to this question and identified overarching factors that promote the innovative power of teams. The researchers examined 15 team factors, which they have taken from over a hundred international studies over the last 30 years, with regard to their importance for innovation. The results show that four factors in particular have a demonstrably positive influence on the innovative ability of teams: Vision, external communication, support for innovation and task orientation (Anderson & Hülsheger, 2009).

The factor vision has the greatest influence on the innovative ability of teams. It describes to what extent the team members have a common understanding of their goals and show a high level of commitment to these goals. The team is committed to the goals, which usually have a visionary character, and considers them achievable (West 1990). Having clear goals helps the team members to use their resources in a targeted manner. They can also give meaning and a sense of shared responsibility to the team’s work (West, 1990; West & Anderson, 1996).

External communication refers specifically to the connections that a team has outside the company and its own area. Researchers Perry-Smith and Shalley (2003) have shown how important these external relationships are for innovation. Interactions with people from other functional areas increase the probability of gaining new knowledge and taking on new perspectives. This in turn stimulates the development of own ideas and transfers approaches from others into the own organization (Hülsheger, Anderson, 2009).

Support for innovation is about the expectation, recognition and practical support for finding new and improved ways of working (West, 1990). It therefore needs a working environment in which innovation is supported and where there are institutional standards and processes to promote it. If the organization and teams are visibly open to change, appreciate new ideas, make them known and reward them, then the strength of innovation is increased. Additionally, personnel support from managers and colleagues is equally crucial (Amabile et al., 1996; Madjar, Oldham & Pratt, 2002).

The factor task orientation describes the execution of tasks of a common concern with excellent quality (West, 1990). Teams in which this factor is very high, strive for the highest standards and the best possible performance. The teams ensure this by reviewing each other, giving feedback and praising and appreciating each other for their performance and ideas. This teamwork leads to different opinions and solutions being discussed. This in turn improves the quality of decisions and ideas and thus increases the innovative strength of the team (Somech, 2006).

How can these outcomes from Hülsheger and West (2009) be related to the innovative ability of agile teams? Do agile values promote the innovative ability of teams?

Agile values are reflected in the factors for the innovative ability of teams

The agile values are derived from the agile manifesto and are as follows: Courage, openness, respect, focus and commitment (Fowler & Highsmith, 2001). Svenja Hofert (2016) extends it by inclusion of the values feedback and communication. If one relates these values to the positive factors influencing innovation ability in teams according to Hülsheger and West (2009), it is striking that they are clearly reflected in them (Hofert, 2016).

Factors for innovative ability in teams Agile Values
Vision Focus, Commitment, Respect
External Communication Openness, Communication, Feedback
Support for innovation Courage, Communication, Openness
Task orientation Focus, Commitment, Feedback

The common vision of the team enables clear goals and identification with the tasks. This corresponds to the values of commitment and focus in the agile world. Goals, roles and tasks are clearly defined and a basic requirement for agile work. Mutual respect is the basis for agile cooperation and supports on the way to the common achievement of goals. External communication with people outside your team or organization requires openness for a fruitful exchange and different perspectives. The ability to request feedback is also crucial in order to receive and process impulses from outside. The support of innovations requires courage from all parties involved. Who has the courage to experiment and make mistakes, creates something new. It requires a fundamental openness towards new ideas. Without clear and intensive communication there is no understanding for new ways. The values of commitment and focus are reflected in task orientation. They are responsible for ensuring that each team member pursues the common goal, abides by agreements and completes his clearly defined tasks. Regular feedback supports the exchange and ensures quality.

The clear reflection of the agile values in the factors described above suggests that these create very good conditions for making teams more innovative. However, science does not yet offer enough reliable studies, so that the topic promises potential for an exciting field of research.

Agility is based on a common value system and empirical approach

In practice, there is often a call for agile practices and methods when the pressure for innovation and change is getting greater and digital transformation is sought. Often little attention is paid to the underlying agile values and principles. If such plans fail, the frustration is great, and the concept of agility ends up in the dustbin: “It doesn’t work anyway”. There is a high probability that projects will fail in which organizations focus only on the introduction of agile practices. It is no coincidence that the concept of agility consists of mindset and methodology. The agile mindset, i.e. agile values and principles, is an indispensable prerequisite for success in the application of agile methods. The introduction of a Kanban board can quickly become a challenge for the team. With this agile method work steps are visualized and it becomes visible who, how fast, how much, creates. This can cause discomfort. Therefore, it requires agile values such as openness and respect in order to support and trust each other in the team.

The individual agile practices all have their justification, but blindly imitating them without attaching importance to the values is not appropriate. It is not the processes alone that make teams successful, but the combination of a common value system and an empirical approach. First of all, the right conditions are needed for a team to be agile and innovative. This includes communicating the agile values and principles, which can then be made tangible through applied methods. Under these conditions, teams can fully exploit their innovative strength and thus significantly increase the organization’s adaptability and competitiveness. How can this succeed?

Every change also means a shift in culture and values. People have to be involved in this. It requires empowerment, participation and intensive communication – and a strategy. It is particularly important to clarify the “why” of the change and to determine the organizational and cultural maturity level. Then an individual, iterative procedure can be developed that creates the prerequisites for more innovative strength in the company. And yes, that requires commitment, courage, focus, openness, respect, feedback and communication.