Losing Weight with the Lean Startup

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Following a weekend of Lean talks around London with Eric Ries, Nick Cordrey has written this guest post as an introduction to Lean for those who might still be unsure about what it involves and how to get started

Everything is very lean at the moment. Not a bit of fat in sight. Which is good timing after the Christmas and New Year over indulgence.

Now you may already be a super fit and highly toned product manager following a strictly Lean Startup diet.

As a PM working in a larger company I’m in the “need to lose some weight” camp (metaphorically speaking of course).

Having just read the Lean Startup and watched Eric Ries speak at the LSE, I wanted to write an article about how easy it will be to get started on lean if this is all a bit new to you (and you think your company might be at the heavier end of the scales).

High fat failure

I’ve seen a few product failures. Often they have gone like this.

Large company with maturing products must innovate to avoid stagnation and fend off pesky disruptors. Product manager creates Product Strategy.ppt. Market research displays some positive signals. Aspirational business case justifies investment (or not but let’s press on anyway because it’s strategic). Glorious specification and use cases covering many scenarios written. Product built although compromises made. Big launch day planned, missed, missed again, re-planned, then hit bang on. Over to marketing and channel now! Wait and watch. Not much happens. Something wrong with the channel. Must be the training. Pull some levers (= spend cash). Sales pick up a bit. Profitability can wait: this is strategic.

I eagerly digest anything which promises to increase the chance of real product success.

Low fat following

So why is the lean movement creating such a buzz?

Broad application. Small startup with new idea. Later stager adds incremental features to existing product. Huge behemoth expands portfolio into adjacent market. These scenarios have a common thread – uncertainty – and lean principles can be applied to them all.

Addresses a common frustration. You pour your creative soul into a product only to see it languish in a wasteland. You signed up to create something brilliant, not to see your energy wasted.

Time for a new framework Agile said “Working software is the primary measure of progress.” Lean says “Validated learning is the primary measure of progress”. Building stuff has never been easier – but Lean asks the bigger question “can it actually succeed?”.

Add to that an engaging and intelligent leader, the popular rise of the entrepreneur, adroit use of social media – and you can see why Lean has gathered significant momentum.

Losing weight is hard

At its simplest Build-Measure-Learn just describes the application of scientific method itself (“inquiry based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning” thanks Wikipedia) to innovation and product development.

It puts the emphasis on thinking hard (and early) about the assumptions behind the whole ecosystem in which the product will live and grow, not just the product itself.

But despite a clear framework and decent case studies, Lean cannot lay out a method for your specific product or market, and does not guarantee success.

It puts the onus on you as a product owner to design a series of incremental experiments that should help you to plot a more direct path to success.

This is no easy task.

Deciding what to test. You don’t have infinite resources or time to try random product mutations and see what sticks. You need all your experience and creativity to build your vision and decide which hypotheses need to be tested now and which don’t.

Designing the right experiments. You have to identify the right measures that will prove or disprove your hypotheses. The right level of quality. The right customers to test with (and access to them). The right control groups. The right planning so that one experiment can be run – measured – analysed while another is being developed.

Interpreting the results. What is the data telling you? Was the test truly independent of other factors? Which results mean you should stick or twist? Data is rarely complete and can still be interpreted through a lens of vested interests or fixed beliefs. Pivoting could easily turn into meandering.

Mix all that with entrenched management behaviour, team dynamics, budget planning and the hard real-world priority decision of refactoring your process for faster experimentation versus delivering the features your best customers are asking for right now.

This is not going to be easy.

Diet plan

I found the Lean Startup refreshing. It introduces a structured way of breaking down a product vision into a set of hypotheses that should be tested. It shifts the mindset from focusing on building a product – to devising the best and fastest experiments from which successful products can emerge.

But I am under no illusion that it will be an easy diet to start and stick to.

If you’re interested in learning more definitely read the Lean Startup, check out theleanstartup.com and here you can see catch Eric Ries’ LSE talk.

 

What’s your view on the Lean Startup? Are you shifting to a leaner way of working? What will the challenges be in your organisation?

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