Continuous Integration as an Innovation Engine

Innovation – that’s an increasingly used buzzword in business today. As more companies have become more efficient, through the use of well known operational processes (e.g. TQM, Six Sigma) and the proliferation of IT has enabled more firms to adopt these methods quicker and cheaper; firms find it increasingly hard to be more successful then their peers. Hence, creating innovation is the latest business trend – and that’s a good thing.

Innovation does not mean that a firm has to invent new products. It does not even mean generating radical ideas. Innovation is about bringing together ideas and inventions that are already there, in a manner which solves an existing problem and generates real economic value.

However, innovation also means failure. Most attempts at innovation will fail and how could it not? The act of innovation is to experiment and try new things and not all of them would be success. Therein lies the contradiction: firms say that they want to be innovative, yet fear failure. To be truly innovative, a firm has to build an environment that not only tolerates failure but to encourage it; to remove the stigma of negativity from the acts that fail would embolden the organization to try bigger and ever bolder experiment, with greater payoffs.

In the business of software engineering, there is ever the contending forces of adding new features and making sure nothing breaks. Most of the projects which I have worked on would inevitably reach a point where the rate of new features added would be outstripped by effects to maintain its stability. Tell tale signs that your projects are nearing this stage is having your application described as spaghetti code, cutting and pasting code as to not “break something” and rejecting a feature request, not because it lacks value, but its deemed to be too difficult.

That’s why continuous integration can be your development team’s innovation engine. An application with a mature continuous integration environment would ensure that the code is healthy and the application works as it is expected. The team is allowed to freely innovate, by adding in big features, radically altering its underlying architecture to enable new paths of growth or even just flat out experiment with new technologies and ideas. If an experiment does not pan out, through a string of unfixable broken builds, just roll back and and you’re good.

Continuous integration is able to form the foundations of an innovation engine, however it is just a start. The team must be willing and able to try, fail and try again.

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