10 Great Sources for Innovation Ideas in Agile Projects

Monday, August 31, 2015 by Rainer Stropek

Image source: https://pixabay.com/de/ortsschild-strasse-n%C3%BCtzlich-nutzen-822236/, Creative Commons License

We deliver our software time cockpit as a service (SaaS model). Instead of paying big license fees upfront, our customers pay for what they use on a monthly basis. From the very beginning, we decided that we don’t want artificial constraints like minimum terms. Our customers can leave whenever it turns out that they don’t need time cockpit anymore.

By sending monthly invoices, we regularly remind our customers of the money they pay for our service.

It is crucial that we continuously show progress and innovation so that customers know what they are paying for. Otherwise it is a question of time until they cancel their time cockpit subscription.

In this blog article I want to talk about 10 great sources we use to get ideas for new features and technologies.

Listen to Your Inner voice, Heart, and Intuition for Disruptive Ideas

Without any question, external influencers like customers and business partners are very important authorities when it comes to sustaining innovation. However, if you are looking for ideas how to radically improve through a completely different approach or a groundbreaking new technology, you likely have to develop them yourself.

Customers do not always know what they need. If you are looking for a disruptive technology or innovation, you have to see that something is broken even if everybody else thinks the status quo is fine. External people might even tell you that your idea is stupid or not feasible (take a look at They really ought to have known better for historical examples). Steve Jobs has put it like that:

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” (Source: http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/38353.html)

Your customers will describe symptoms or concrete pains but often they cannot express the root cause of their problem. If your customers ask for a specific solution, it is probably not as radically different as you first might think.

“After your target customers are identified, you spend time researching them—looking for their unarticulated (or latent) needs: that is, what customers can’t quite tell you themselves but which are the deep desires and underlying needs that drive their behaviors. Identifying an unarticulated need that your competition has not yet noticed, and then building an excellent solution for it, is a great way to achieve differentiation in a crowded market.” (Source: De Bonte, Fletcher: Scenario-Focused Engineering, Microsoft Press, 2014)

If you are looking for a disruptive technology, your inner voice, heart, and intuition are important sources for ideas.

If you want to learn more about sustaining vs. disruptive, I encourage you to read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen.

The following sources for ideas are more for the sustainable side of innovation.

Eat Your Own Dogfood

It is good practice to first try new releases internally. Make the development team use is, let other departments in your company use it. You can even selectively choose a few external persons (e.g. friendly customers or close partners who have signed an NDA) who you give access to your latest bits. Use the learnings and feedback from internal users to stabilize new features.

Next, you can share a new product release through an early adopter program (e.g. beta versions, previews) with a broader audience. It might make sense to offer a direct communication channel from early adopters to the development team so that feedback gets in quickly and directly.

Learn from Support and Trouble Tickets

Support tickets are a great source of ideas for how you could enhance your product. If customers struggle with a feature over and over again, you should likely redesign or simplify it.

We recommend to regularly review your support ticket database. Categorize the issues, find the ones that come in most often, and analyze them. It is important to not only look at the details of the support cases. Instead, try to see the big picture and root causes of the customers’ problems.

Internally, we use Zendesk for support and trouble ticket management. It can easily be connected with time cockpit via both systems' REST APIs. With this, we get an integrated view of support topics and working hours spent for support.

Ask Churning Customers and Analyze Lost Sales Pitches

It isn’t funny to lose a customer or a sales pitch. However, every customer who turns away is a valuable source for innovation ideas. It is important to ask why the customer left. Doesn’t she need the service at all anymore or will she use a competitor’s service instead? What was missing?

Sometimes, asking lost customers for their cancellation reason might bring some of them back. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding and you have to enhance your documentation. Even if they really leave, you will gain insight into what’s important for your users.

Listen to Customer Feedback and Complaints

Value customer feedback. Never forget to say “thank you” if a customer takes the time to tell you her thoughts about your service. That’s easier said than done, especially if it is negative feedback.

The easier you make it to give feedback, the more likely you will get one. Here is an example from our service time cockpit: We decided to integrate a service called Usersnap so that customers can easily create visual feedback about their ideas how to make time cockpit’s web UI even better.

Don’t Forget Courtesy Calls

In our experience, regularly calling existing customers and asking whether they are happy with the service we provide, pays off. It will make you happy if you hear that everything is fine. If not, you will get ideas for innovations. Sometimes customers will tell you about features they miss that are already in the product. This might be an opportunity for cross-selling (e.g. additional modules, training, consulting).

Watch Your Competition

This one is obvious, so let’s keep it short: Regularly look at what your competition is doing and think of the consequences on your product planning.

Monitor Development of New Technologies

New technologies can enable new features and new business models (e.g. lower operational costs leading to lower subscription prices). At time cockpit, we spend a notable amount of time and money to stay up to date in areas of technology that are relevant to us.

Monitoring technological progress and evaluating consequences on ones products and services does not happen by accident. We think that in every software company some people should consciously dedicate a certain share of their working time to this topic. They should experiment with new technologies and build prototypes.

Listen to New Employees

Whenever new members join your team, value their feedback instead of making them shut up because of a lack of experience. If you have been working on a project for a long time, you have blinders on. New team members don’t.

See Analogies

Thomas Edison said about would-be innovators that they have to have “a logical mind that sees analogies” (see this Wall Street Journal article for more details). Sometimes you see concepts, workflows or solution approaches in totally different business areas or even in private hobbies that can help to enhance your products and services.

Get Information from Instrumentation and Telemetry

When you design your product, you have certain use cases in mind. However, customer might interact with it in a way you never anticipated. Which features are unnecessary? What does really matter to your customers? I recommend to use an existing tool or service to gather and analyze telemetry data. It does not only give you insights into what your users really do with your software, it also offers performance data that helps you to detect bugs and areas with poor response times.

Here are some tools we are using or have been using in the past:

The best in class combine usage data with time tracking to find out whether they are spending their time on features that really matter to their users. They carefully optimize those areas that are used most.

Did you know that our time tracking product time cockpit has a nice integration with Visual Studio and Team Foundation Server? Many developers use it to gather data about how much time they spent on certain backlog items or features.

Align With Your Company’s Strategy

Agile project management approaches like Scrum or Kanban are great frameworks to incorporate sustainable innovation into your development workflow. However, it is important to have a larger vision for long-term product planning. Make sure that all your innovation ideas are aligned with your overall vision. Question all your small steps and ask how they support your strategic goals.

If you want to read more about long-term strategy and agile methods, you might be interested in our blog articles Don't Let Agile Ruin Your Software's Architectural Design and Shearing Layers.

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