Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Highlights from Our Webcast on Lean Startup for Engineers

Guest post by Lisa Regan, writer for The Lean Startup Conference.

Last week, Eric sat down with developer Dan Milstein--one of the most popular speakers from the 2012 Lean Startup Conference--for a webcast conversation on getting engineers into the Lean Startup cycle. If you missed it, go ahead and watch it here. And if you have questions, post them in the comments here; Eric and Dan will be jumping in to answer.

There were some great take-aways from this conversation, not just for engineers, but for anyone trying to rethink how a startup approaches its defining problem—uncertainty. As Eric put it in the webcast, “A startup is a human institution designed to do something new, under conditions of extreme uncertainty. We don’t really know what’s going to work in advance.” The question then becomes: What can engineers, and everyone else at a startup, do to reduce that uncertainty? As Eric and Dan talked this through, they focused on three areas: first principles, organizational shifts, and methods.

First Principles
Eric began by offering a basic principle for engineers interested in exploring Lean Startup ideas: Start with yourself. “Whatever work you’re in the middle of doing right now, ask how you could treat that as an experiment. Have an explicit hypothesis. What is what you’re building supposed to be doing *specifically*? Then define how that will manifest in real life. Then think of how to test and measure – just for yourself – that effect. Do that and you will automatically graduate to a higher level.” What’s at that higher level? Changes beyond yourself, to the organization more broadly. But, as Eric repeated, that has to begin with the individual: “If you yourself are not able to apply scientific thinking in small ways, you’re going to fail at your vaunted organizational change.”

Organizational change
Once you’ve agreed to change yourself, and to start testing and experimenting, you really need the organization to change as well. Engineers can only do so much on their own. Here’s Eric: “If you’re trying to do engineering under conditions of extreme uncertainty in order to succeed in delighting customers and having an impact on the world, you need to build cross-functional collaboration into the process from the beginning, and to see marketing and engineering really integrated into a unit that’s operating together to try to retire some of those risks early on.”

But this is where things can get tricky. Eric: “Organizational change requires the explicit buy-in of senior management. How do we convince senior management that their pet projects, their beautiful babies, are not as beautiful as they think they are?” By asking them to test those projects. Indeed he has a test for determining whether leaders are visionaries: “So many entrepreneurs cloak themselves in the myth of the visionary precisely to avoid having to confront these kinds of questions. The easiest way to tell the difference between a visionary and a charlatan is to ask them to put their ideas to the test. The visionary who actually believes they’re right will agree to test their ideas 10 times out of 10…. My experience is that the ratio of charlatans to visionaries in our world is 10 to 1 or 100 to 1.” 

Here’s a specific example of organizational impediments that Eric and Dan hashed out. The fact that engineers hate to throw away their work — and everyone else is afraid to ask them to. The solution has two points, which Eric laid out: “First is to realize that if we don’t build something people want, the work will be thrown away *anyway*. All this testing and experimentation is a path toward _preventing_ work from being thrown away.” If the product doesn’t get users, it won’t reveal its flaws – but when the company fails it will still be thrown out. As Dan pointed out, “A product outage is a good sign because it means that people care. You have a great stable system when no one’s using it.”

(There’s another, surprising reason Eric says engineers shouldn’t fear throwing work away, but we’ll leave it to you to watch the webcast for that!)

Dan also spoke about engineers’ investment in the business’ overall success as the key element in persuading them to let their work go: “Part of what’s useful is to understand engineers are profoundly driven by wanting to solve meaningful problems. And they may have forgotten that if they’re working at an organization that doesn’t let them do that. But if the leadership of the organization can share the fundamental question of whether the business is going to work as a problem to be solved – let’s all go solve that together – engineers can get really excited about solving that problem, and then they don’t so much mind work getting thrown away.”
Real-world Applications
In the last segment of their conversation, Eric shared two examples of organizations that have integrated experimenting and testing as their defining methods, not just in terms of engineering, but across the business. The first of these is an anonymous mobile app whose team does a new build every week, loads it on their phones on Friday, tests it all weekend, and on Monday meets to decide what’s working. Often, they wind up throwing out the last week’s work. Eric: “With mobile apps, especially, the products you love the most are the simplest. They on the surface have very few features and all the complexity is hidden behind a really gentle user experience. Those products can only be produced by teams that are willing to throw code away. If you’re afraid to delete you can only add complexity. Simplification is the removal of complexity.”

For one final example, Eric mentioned last year’s Lean Startup Conference talk by Diane Tavenner of Summit Charter Schools. Her weekly rounds of experimentation and metric-gathering led to the conclusion that, when it comes to teaching kids math, lecture doesn’t work. Eric: “You think it’s hard for an engineer to let code go? You’re a professional educator and you’re going to let lecturing go? That’s hard. And it was only through this rhythm of regular experimentation that they were able to let that go.”

Here’s Diane’s video if you missed it – it’s really worth watching if you’re considering the role engineering can play within an entire organizational shift toward testing and experimentation:

Check out the webcast and then post your questions in the comments here. 
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