So Meta: Using Lean Startup Principles to Create Lean Organizations

A few years ago, I found myself in an exciting and challenging position. I’d just finished reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, and I felt like I’d just been given the keys to the proverbial castle. I was absolutely certain that this methodology had the potential to change our organization and the way we pursue our mission, and man, did we need the help.

How many times can the word “Lean” appear in one post?

I’d been with Adopt-a-Pet.com for about eight years by then, and my title was Executive Director, which is a typical title for someone who leads a nonprofit organization. And that’s what we were: a charity that happened to be a website, and we operated as such. We knew nothing about software development. We were just a few people with a burning desire to keep animals from dying in animal shelters by trying to open a virtual window in every kennel to help potential adopters find, and fall in love with, dogs and cats waiting for homes. We’d found some success through sheer force of will, passion, authenticity in our mission, and probably some good luck, but it was in spite of ourselves. Now, after weighing and ultimately turning down an acquisition offer, our founder/CEO and I made a conscious decision to turn things around and start operating as a high-functioning tech company that happened to be nonprofit. And that’s how I ended up with Eric Ries’ life-changing book in my hands.

After reading The Lean Startup, I realized just how many mistakes we’d made over the years. We never talked to our customers. We built features that sounded exciting to us, and we spent months or years working on them in a vacuum, waterfall-style, before launching them out to the world. After launch, we rarely looked back; we didn’t assess if or how our customers were using our features, or if they were moving the needle on our greater mission of adopting out shelter pets. My eyes were open; I couldn’t wait to start getting out of the building, forming hypotheses, prioritizing assumptions, and building minimum viable products designed to get maximum learning with minimum effort. I shared what I’d learned with my CEO, and he became a champion. I started experimenting on my own, deepening my understanding of Lean principles until I was certain that it was time to bring them to the rest of our team.

And then I realized that I had no idea how to do it.

Luckily, I had this newfound passion for Lean, and I decided that the best way for me to bring Lean Startup to my entire organization was by using the principles of Lean Startup. It’s meta, but bear with me. It worked for us. It can work for you, whether you’re bringing Lean into a small organization like I was, you’re creating a Lean innovation pod in an enterprise organization, or you’re already Lean and you want a better way to make sure new hires are steeped in your particular brand of Lean. It can even help you introduce other methodologies and processes to your team. Here’s how I adapted the Build-Measure-Learn cycle to make my organization into the Lean powerhouse it is today:

That’s your mantra…Your team is your customer. Like any Lean project, start by doing customer discovery. Learn about the problem space as much as you can. In this case, getting out of the building is really staying in the building, but the principles are the same. Talk to your customers. Find out what makes them tick, what inspires them, what frustrates them. What makes them feel professionally and personally fulfilled? Observe your product teams and your engineering teams at work, and notice the things that create friction.

I found that our engineers were maybe a little frustrated.

In my customer discovery, I learned that my teams were sincerely passionate about our mission, but there was a lot of frustration at not knowing if the work we did every day actually contributed to saving animals’ lives and helping people find unconditional love. Furthermore, there was a feeling of dissatisfaction at starting projects and then having new projects thrown at them before they could make significant progress on the first project. Leadership was seen as indecisive and impulsive.

Taking into account what you’ve learned from your customers (your team) and your own experiences as a leader in your organization, ask yourself “How will our organization and our business change if we successfully adopt Lean Startup methodology?” The answer is your hypothesis, and your hypothesis is the inspiring vision you’ll share with your team. Be as specific as you can be, and attach success metrics and timelines.

My hypothesis was “If we as an organization can become Lean, we will be able to understand our current success rate and then double it within a year. By working faster and without waste, failing fast, and iterating our way to helping more animals, we will have much more fun at work. We will have a clear picture of the impact we’re making in the world and we’ll be much more effective. We’ll know exactly what to build, so we won’t get distracted by new opportunities that prevent us from finishing current projects.”

I called an all-hands meeting to give a very brief overview of Lean and to present my vision. Afterward, I did another round of customer interviews. I learned that most people were excited about the possibilities I outlined in my vision, but they were also skeptical of our ability to pull off such a drastic transition. They were also nervous about being held accountable in new ways; after all, many of them had been with us for years, and were used to the way we’d worked for such a long time, even as they recognized that we could do better. What they needed to hear was that we were all in this together, and that perfection was not expected. We would learn together, we would fail together, and we would iterate on our processes until they worked for us. I made sure to reiterate this message throughout the transition, as often and in as many ways as I could.

Reading The Lean Startup had been transformative for me, and I didn’t want my team to get a diluted version of it, so I decided to build shared understanding through one of my favorite things: a book club. This one was mandatory, and didn’t involve wine like my other book clubs (yours might!), but it was a great success. Every week, I’d assign one or two chapters of The Lean Startup, depending on the density of the material.

Rules are rules, yo.

These were our book club rules. Yours might be completely different, but these worked beautifully for us:

  • Everybody reads the chapters in advance of the meeting and is expected to come prepared with questions, observations, and ideas for how the principles in the chapter(s) might fit into their current project or role.
  • The book club meeting is not a lecture or a presentation, but a conversation among peers. Your job, as facilitator, is to come prepared with conversation-sparking questions and to ask ad-hoc follow-up questions that keep the discussion moving.
  • Everybody speaks at least once at every meeting. (Yes, even engineers, and eventually they’ll get over their white-hot loathing of you.) Seriously, if you have people who are absolutely petrified of speaking in a group setting, do make accommodations for them (they’re your customer, after all), but the everybody-speaks rule is a good guideline.
  • Since you want everyone to speak, your book club needs to be sized appropriately. If you have too many people for everyone to participate in the conversation, split into multiple groups.

A few more tips:

  • Be cross-functional. Resist the urge to break into functional groups (all engineers, all product leaders, etc.) and instead, include representatives of all different areas of your business. In our book club, we had engineers, designers, product managers, project managers, people in customer service roles, marketing execs, and even an HR exec, all learning together. It was valuable for everyone to hear the questions and concerns posed by people in different roles, and it was a great opportunity to build empathy between team members.
  • Remember: you’re asking not just for a change in process, but a change in culture. This is why it’s great to include people you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with product methodologies: a true cultural shift needs everyone on board. Also, Lean Startup tactics can be creatively adapted to improve work beyond just product development. I truly believe that there are few roles that can’t benefit from operating closer to the customer and working more iteratively.
  • This might seem obvious, but some people are auditory learners. Make sure you give your team members the option of listening to the audiobook. We did, and our team was split about 50/50 between audio and ebook/hardcover versions.
  • Nobody knows everything; including you. And that’s okay! You’re probably going to be asked questions that you can’t answer. Create a parking lot for “I-don’t-knows”. After the meeting, spend time researching answers and follow up with your team. If you can’t easily find an answer, consult an advisor. I’m happy to be on your “phone-a-friend” list, and if I can’t answer, I’ll pull in my own advisors to help.

It’s really important that you not let Lean stand as a theory for long. Get busy using it right away. Put together a project team made up of your early adopters, the people on your team who are most excited to start experimenting. Work closely with them. Help them define a hypothesis. Get them out of the building and talking with your customers. Guide them through a few build-measure-learn cycles. Look at analytics, gather user feedback, and lead pivot-or-persevere meetings. Ask the right questions and be both coach and cheerleader.

At this point, you’re working with two different MVPs. One is the MVP your team is building, and the other is your first Lean team itself.Remember that MVPs are designed to get maximum learning with minimum effort. Failure is baked right in there. Do not be afraid to fail; in fact, fully expect to fail, both in the product you’re building and in your use of Lean. Arm your team with a love of failing fast and a sense of excitement at the learning each failure provides.

In addition to measuring the success of the product your pilot team is building, measure how your implementation of Lean methodology is going. Have a weekly or bi-weekly Lean retrospective meeting to look back on what went well and what did not. Look at metrics like number of customer conversations (in this case, I mean the customers your team is trying to reach with their product), number of experiments launched, and quantity and quality of validated learnings. Seek feedback from your customers (and now I mean your team) about using Lean.

Now, take your measurements and learn from them. Just like product development is iterative, so is your implementation of Lean Startup methodology. Creating your own Lean product is a process of iteration, success, and failure. You and your team will probably make lots of tweaks to your processes while perfecting your own version of Lean. Some will be great successes, others will fail and need to be rolled back to the previous version.

One of the most important roles of your Lean pilot team is exposing the rest of your organization to their work. Although your pilot team is doing the day-to-day work, ideally, the rest of your organization should be following along, invested in the drama that is unfolding. I loved exposing the greater team to the experiments and iterations that our Lean pilot team was about to launch, rather than just reporting on the results in the past tense. That way, the larger team got to experience how much fun it is to launch something quickly and wait for the analytics data and user feedback to start coming in.

Send out a company-wide daily or weekly digest of your Lean team’s work, results of experiments, learnings, planned iterations, and pivoting discussions. You may want to have a weekly or bi-weekly meeting, similar to a sprint review, in which the members of the Lean team present this work to the rest of the company and open it up to questions and feedback. Let the rest of the team start making suggestions for iterations and optimizations so they can begin to get their feet wet, too!

By this, I mean it’s time to expand beyond your pilot team. Take the best learnings of your first Lean team and package them into a repeatable process that you can implement with your other teams. If it makes sense for you, break up your pilot team and seed each of your new teams with at least one member of the first team who can act as coach and evangelist.

Keep finding ways to share experiences and learning between the teams, helping each other get better and better at working quickly and iteratively, being more data-driven and customer-centered, and finding ways to build smaller and smaller MVPs.

Finally, don’t forget to come back to your original hypothesis on a regular basis. Is Lean doing everything you thought it would? Is it solving the problems you expected, or is it solving different but equally-important problems? Or is it failing? Be open about your observations, and don’t be afraid to pivot if you’re not satisfied with the results of your foray into Lean Startup methodology. Everything is an experiment, and your customers (your team) are different than anyone else’s. They may need different versions of your solution, or different solutions entirely.

I could write an entire post (and I will one of these days) about how to screen and hire employees who are experienced in Lean Startup, and whether it’s best to hire people who claim to be Lean or best to hire talented people who are inexperienced in Lean and thus easier to mold to your organization’s specific interpretation of Lean. For now, I’ll just say this: no matter if they’re experienced or not, you need to give each new team member a complete education in your application of Lean. If you hire a lot of people on an ongoing basis, you can repeat all the processes above on a monthly basis, beginning with customer discovery (that’s easy in this case, since you’ll be doing interviews with prospective employees anyway!) and then starting a new book club cohort. If your team’s rate of growth is slower, like mine, assign each new hire a Lean mentor within your organization. The mentor can conduct a private book club, and then allow the new team member to shadow him or her during a few build-measure-learn cycles. It may feel like a lengthy onboarding process, but the payoff is an employee who is fully prepared for success within your organization!

Do you have suggestions for how to improve this process? Did it work for you? I’d love to hear from you!

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Abbie Moore

Empathetic leadership enthusiast, author, Lean Startup evangelist, COO at Petco Love, former CEO at Adopt-a-Pet.com.