Everyone else is doing it (incorrectly)!

posted by Jeff | Saturday, May 18, 2013, 4:19 PM | comments: 0

Innovation is hard. You can definitely foster it, but you can't really force it. It's completely fascinating when people innovate in a massively disruptive way. While you can't make innovation happen, it's something I try to strive for. There are certain ways that I've had a great deal of success innovating, and others where I haven't. Professionally, it's easy to get into the rut of doing things a certain way, because everyone else does it that way. The first step to doing it in a better way often requires questioning the establishment. While my inner rebel is all about that, it's also an exhausting practice.

Coaching volleyball is one of those scenarios where the questioning comes easy. For example, before a match, you're given several minutes of court time to warm up (the actual time depends on the governing organization). Since I was in high school, that time was always used by coaches to send perfectly tossed balls into the air for hitting, while your one or two short defensive specialists tried to dig those hit balls. This results in a lot of "whoo-hoo's" and pleasure on the part of your athletes, but I wasn't sure if it was constructive.

Attacking the ball is always step three in volleyball. Someone has to expertly pass the ball first, then someone has to set it for the hitter. Without those two things, there is no hitting. So after a season or two, I thought, why am I wasting time on this, especially when my kids can't pass to save their lives? So despite the protest of the kids (and parents, who always have the answers), I ditched the hitting lines. I put six kids on the other side of the net, and tossed balls in for them to pass, set and hit. I rotated them around. This exercised all of the skills necessary to score, including the ever important transition on and off the net. It was real, core to the game, and made a huge difference. It also happened to be noisy and menacing in appearance, which freaked out the other team, so that was a plus.

I tossed out what everyone else was doing, and tried something that seemed to better serve the scenario. I try to do this with all things in life. And yes, it can be exhausting questioning everything, especially if you end up where you started, and "everyone" had it right.

It's a lot harder to innovate your way out of the norm in my line of work. In terms of the actual computer science, sure, there are a lot of things that have been thought to death and they're good ideas. It tends to be the process and the associated people issues that are harder to change. There is an important parallel though to the volleyball warm-up. It turns out that process is almost always wrought with wasted time for things that don't matter, that don't get to something real and valuable. Even in celebrated (capital "A") Agile practices, teams have a hard time identifying the things they do that aren't adding value, let alone innovating.

Innovation isn't easy, but you can get practice at it. It starts when you stop accepting sheep behavior and ask if there's a better way.


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