From Ideation to Innovation: An Iterative Approach to Evolutionary Innovation for Agile Teams

William M. Duke Written by:
William M. Duke

Innovation rarely emerges quickly or without concentrated effort, though today’s business headlines may suggest that innovation lies exclusively in those “eureka!” moments. Even Greek mythology seems to lean toward the instant gratification school of thought. As the story goes, the Greek god Zeus suffered from a terrible headache after consuming Metis the goddess of thought. Prometheus relieves his pain by striking him in the head with an axe and out pops Athena, the goddess of wisdom, fully formed and ready for battle. While the meaning of this metaphor has many theories, it seems to suggest that wisdom suddenly pops out of our heads, ready to go.

Innovation is often assumed to be the product of genius rather than hard work but as many executives might argue, innovation is rarely a sudden flash of genius erupting on the scene to disrupt the status quo. It is a slower process that requires a collaborative team to continuously iterate – plan, execute, and assess – their ideas. Although innovation occasionally takes great revolutionary leaps, it is mostly a slower, evolutionary process. At an iterative, evolutionary speed, innovation requires lots of ideas from lots of people, and the discipline to execute in rapid iterations.

Contemporary Innovation

Modern engineering gives us an endless array of innovations. Engineers design a product and then manufacturing builds and mass produces it. They conceive Athena in their minds and pass her off to be born, ready for battle, in production.

Evolutionary iteration looks a bit different. Unilever experienced the power of iterative engineering back in the 1970’s when it embarked on a mission to design a new nozzle for the production of detergent. It set up two design teams. One was a group of mathematicians equipped with knowledge of fluid dynamics, chemistry, and high-pressure systems. This team designed a new nozzle. Unfortunately, it did not even work as well as the original.

The other was a team of biologists that understood evolutionary theory and how iterative adaptation works generation after generation in living systems. The team of biologists made ten different nozzles, tested them and selected the best performing. Then, they made ten more designs based upon the one selected, tested them, and selected the best again. After 45 generations of this iterative process, they created a nozzle that significantly outperformed the original.

That sounds great for something as small and limited as a nozzle, but what about something bigger and more important like the product and service lines of a company? Consistently disruptive companies like Amazon, Apple, Dyson and Google don’t sit down and conceive a final product at the outset. Instead, they iterate to evolve solutions and offerings. They take ideas, collaborate, test, improve and iterate all over again.

The Keys to Innovation

Innovating through iteration for agile teams requires four things:

  1. Ideas, usually in some nascent, fragmented form in many people’s minds
  2. Effective collaboration to elicit those fragmented ideas and formulate a more complete and actionable idea
  3. The actual process of iterating—using experiences and lessons learned to improve
  4. The discipline to follow it—talking about iteration and actually doing it are two very different things

Discipline is particularly essential to success in evolutionary innovation. As Jim Collins has indicated in his bestsellers Good to Great and Great by Choice, discipline is the real differentiator among companies. Southwest Airlines took its innovative ideas from the forgotten Pacific Southwest Airlines and executed them iteratively with much greater discipline.

Like Unilever’s detergent nozzle, Collins advocates an iterative discipline around developing and testing innovative ideas. To use a military analogy, Collins suggests companies should fire lots of small “bullets” to see where they strike, then adjust their fire iteratively until they hit the mark. Then, they launch their “cannonballs” once they have found their target. In other words, companies must iterate with discipline until they find a winning innovation, then execute for all its worth.

Successful Teams Establish an Iterative Process of Record

To be a fundamentally sound iterative process, successful teams must be both simple and scalable; simple in that it is easy to execute with discipline and scalable in that it can be applied to tactical missions as well as organizational strategy.

The skeleton of an iterative process is very simple—almost too simple. It consists of three parts that may look familiar– plan, execute and assess. These iterative components are three of the four phases of the FLEX Cycle, the iterative process of record of Afterburner clients.

So how do you go about establishing an iterative process of record? Examine your current operating procedures to identify your starting point:

PLANNING | How do you plan? Does it involve collaboration? Do you have a planning framework or collaborative process?

EXECUTING | How do you execute? Do you have an Execution Rhythm? How does individual execution differ from multi-person team execution?

ASSESSING | How do you assess the outcome of execution? Do you have a review process? How does your team learn together, then turn that learning into iterative improvement?

Once you’ve identified what current processes support iteration, establish a realistic timeline for introducing the remaining processes into daily operations. Change can be very difficult if done hastily or without discipline. Clearly, articulate your intent and invest the time to garner full-team buy-in, you’ll need all hands on deck for this mission.

The myth of innovation is that the idea itself is what is valuable. The Athena of innovation rarely emerges fully formed and ready for battle and more often emerges as an infant idea that must be nurtured with disciplined, iterative care.


Will Duke is Afterburner’s Director of Learning and Development. His duties include coordination of the development of intellectual property, training programs, and educational materials. He also serves as a consultant to process and continuous improvement management programs. With Co-author James “Murph” Murphy, he wrote the 2010 release “The Flawless Execution Field Manual. Duke currently serves as a senior Human Resources Officer in the in the U.S. Navy Reserve and has held numerous command and positions throughout his career.