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?

A little background…

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:

Your Team Is Your Customer

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.

Create Your Hypothesis and Share Your Vision

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.

Build Shared Understanding, Cross-Functionally

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.

What’s next? Recruit Early Adopters and Build an MVP

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.

Measure

Learn

Learn, Part II: Be Transparent

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!

Build Your Next Iteration

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.

Pivot or Persevere?

New People, Same Culture: How to Bring New Hires Into the Fold

Questions? Comments?

Socially-conscious product leader, Lean Startup evangelist, COO and Chief Product Officer at Adopt-a-Pet.com