Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Getting Engineers into the Lean Startup Cycle

Guest post by Lisa Regan

On August 20, Eric will sit down with developer and Hut8Labs co-founder Dan Milstein for a webcast you can join to discuss “Getting Engineers Into the Lean Startup Cycle.” This conversation will be a great opportunity for engineers and engineering managers to learn more about implementing Lean Startup ideas. It’s also for founders who want to think about how engineering and the rest of the business team can realign around a shared set of goals. This webcast is the first of a series held by The Lean Startup Conference and will take place on August 20th at 10am PST/1pm EST; it’s free—you just need to register in advance.

The conversation will be free-ranging, and it will include live Q&A with attendees, so we don’t know exactly what will happen. But there are a few themes Dan and plan to hash out. Dan comes to this conversation as an engineer, product developer, and startup veteran with a career-long interest in how people interact with the complex systems they themselves build. He investigates the peculiar conditions present in a startup, where, by definition, everyone, including the engineers, is operating in extreme uncertainty. He is interested in asking, given that environment: How can the team measure progress? How can engineers establish benchmarks or make predictions? Should they even try? How do you move the business in the right direction—and how do you find out what that direction might be? All of which amounts to: How do you reduce that inherent uncertainty? Dan and Eric will also talk about how engineers can contribute to containing uncertainty—including in the way they interact with leadership.

These issues don’t lend to easy answers. Indeed, at a startup, the entire business is one big question: “Can we offer a product that fills the customers’ needs such that they’re willing to pay for it?” As Dan described in an interview last year, many businesses inadvertently turn away from this question by splitting the teams for product, marketing, and engineering apart from each other, with each pursuing a tailored set of questions. But this often allows everyone to run from the problems of risk and failure. Instead, Dan says, all of the teams, as well as leadership, need to collectively accept that “in conditions of extreme uncertainty, you’re going to get things really badly wrong,” so it’s important to learn to “focus on the risks rather than pretend they aren’t there.” To do this, you’ll need to overcome basic psychological and structural barriers—ones that Dan and Eric will discuss—and rethink the way engineers and leadership communicate.

For a specific example of how Dan’s been thinking about those barriers in his own work, check out his presentation from the 2012 Lean Startup Conference, in which he broke down the way he runs a Five Whys post-mortem following a product or process failure. As Dan described in his talk, post-mortems are hindered by our human sense of guilt, shame, and blame. Because, he notes, even as we are asking, “Why?”, we are also putting a focus on, “accusing, identifying villains, punishing. And this is going at it all wrong.” We’ll let Dan talk directly about his experiences, but among his solutions is changing the question itself. For example, instead of using a Five Whys to find out, “Whose fault is this?” or even “What was the root cause?”, use it to ask yourself, “What were the multiple contingencies that led to this problem, and which of them can we efficiently address right now?”

How can engineers and leadership (and product and sales) realign around the right questions? What human limitations and structural hindrances will they need to overcome to do so? And, how will they achieve this? On August 20, join Dan and to discuss these issues. Register today.
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