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Digital Strategy
3 min

Don’t let your backlog get in the way of innovation

by Kalev Peekna, Ryan Schulz March 8, 2022

For the last two years, many digital leaders have been in a reactive, survival mode. There’s been little to no time for innovation. Now, as we emerge and plan for the future, many organizations are struggling to rekindle innovation.

No time

To keep up with speed-to-market demand, digital leaders have been forced to adopt agile workflows. With an agile approach, you become really good at optimizing and making incremental improvements, but you’re not often doing anything transformative. When everything is driven by two-week sprints, and when everything has to be done ASAP, there’s no wiggle room for blue-sky thinking.

Slave to the backlog

A robust backlog (and what well-managed digital property or product doesn’t have a robust backlog?) can quickly become an obstacle that stifles creativity. Ignoring the backlog is challenging when all the tasks seem essential and when the stakeholders’ expectations have been set. It’s a type of sunk cost fallacy–believing you must follow through because of the time and money that’s already been invested. Of course, it’s called a fallacy for a reason. It’s not actually rational. To get the most value from your digital efforts, your best bet is to take a step back and gain some perspective at regular moments. Because when you’re stuck in the backlog, you’re not open to inspiration and change.

Lack of focus

Backlogs can also make it difficult to keep your priorities straight. When everything seems important—and you face an impossibly long lists of tasks to complete—it’s hard to determine where focus is best placed. The connective thread between your efforts and your overall marketing goals, and how those both ladder up to the organization’s key objectives, starts to fray.

4 ways to revitalize innovation

We’re not saying abandon agile. It’s just important to recognize that it has limitations. Here’s how you can be both agile and innovative.

  1. Run a parallel innovation path: For large-scale, complex initiatives, create a parallel innovation program that gives people the space to think freely and broadly. It should operate on its own so that it’s not beholden to the backlog, nor organizational boundaries. It may not itself be agile, but it should meet with regularity and feed into your main agile workstream.
  2. Return to the source: True human-centered innovation does not treat inspiration like a lightbulb that goes off in the middle of a particularly creative workshop. The source of all good inspiration is information about and empathy with the people who use your digital tools. But many organizations treat their research as pointed efforts that are done once in a blue moon. The last few years have taught us all that needs and expectations can shift immensely in a short time, so make regular end-user research an integral part of your program—and use that research to interrogate your backlog.
  3. Empower and incentivize: Innovation is not going to happen just by celebrating it and giving people permission. You have to provide the space for them to do it, and reward them accordingly. For example, many organizations base compensation on how much you do and how quickly it gets done. When employees are rewarded for productivity, it’s not really in their interest to innovate.
  4. Make it a practice: It would be nice if innovation was a single lightning strike. But it’s not a moment in time or a single idea. It takes discipline, like playing the piano or speaking a second language. Without regular practice, it’s hard to be good at it. With enough focus and care, it becomes a muscle you can flex to drive real impact and results at your organization.

The truth is, backlogs will never be empty. When chipping away at them, the key is to avoid getting stuck in autopilot. When you remain in a series of perpetual sprints, eventually you start to lose sight of your initial goals and/or overall strategy. Your run the risk of being disrupted unless you bake in a way to periodically take a step back, rethink your model and question any fundamental truths that are behind that backlog.

Sometimes innovating means adopting a different approach. Sometimes it means starting over. Whatever it looks like, in the end, innovation helps protect your time and money because it drives transformative ideas that produce better results.


Photo Credit: Maximalfocus | Unsplash

Kalev Peekna
Managing Director, Chief Strategist

Kalev Peekna is the Chief Strategist at One North. He brings a cross-platform, user-focused approach to innovations in brand development, design, data analysis and technology, and helps clients apply those innovations to their strategic aims.

If I were a vegetable: I would be broccoli. Because I have always wanted someone to call me “cruciferous.”

Most unusual job: Cocktail bartender at a Cabaret

Ryan Schulz
Managing Director, Chief Executive

Managing Director, Chief Executive at One North, Ryan is responsible for helping to shape and grow design solutions for clients. He works across practices to develop programs and capabilities that help clients fall in love with the future.