Saturday, December 22, 2018

Lean Startup in New Places: The Lean Startup Conference 2018

So much happened when the Lean Startup Community came together in Las Vegas last month for this year’s conference that I’m still processing it all. The high levels of learning, great conversations, and most of all camaraderie between entrepreneurs of all kinds was amazing to be a part of. It was great to see so many of you there, and in particular to talk with so many different kinds of Lean Startup practitioners. 700 people joined us in Downtown Las Vegas for our sold out events, and another 2500 participated by livestream from more than 50 countries all over the world (a special shout-out to people in places where the time difference was off-putting but didn’t deter you!).

Las Vegas was a new home for the conference this year, thanks to a partnership with Zappos and Tony Hsieh, with whom I talked as part of the program. (Here’s a shot of us backstage before our fireside chat, in which we answered questions from the audience, and another from during the talk.) The change in location not only gave us all opportunities to see and do new things, but emphasized the reality that entrepreneurship is not about Silicon Valley, or even tech. It’s not about London, or New York, or any of the places we think of as traditional tech hubs. Entrepreneurs are doing incredible things all over the country and all over the world, and in a huge variety of fields and situations. The Lean Startup is ten years old this year--something I never could have imagined back when I was first testing out the idea and getting grief at parties about how bad it was! Its spread is entirely because of the incredible, inspiring work entrepreneurs are doing. The conference panel on Lean Startup Where You Least Expect It was just one of the many events that focused on that. It was made up of people working in medical technology, air purification, and education, as well as the founder of a VC fund investing in nuclear fusion to combat climate change

Hearing about this huge range of projects, with all the gory details included, is what the conference was all about. There were no corporate-approved messages, no perfectly crafted narratives about how easily everything worked out--just real details about problems being solved in all kinds of places. Ann Mei Chang spoke to us about Revolutionizing Social Good with the Lean Startup and her new book Lean Impact, and the challenges and successes to date of using the method in the non-profit space to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues. We also heard from people at the Department of Defense, and a diverse assortment of hugely successful startups like Kabam, Eventbrite, and The Muse. This great storytelling was accompanied by a whole roster of practical panels and workshops, which covered things like A/B testing, customer discovery, and scaling. You can check out Dave Binetti’s presentation A New Approach to Measuring Product/Market Fit here.

None of it, of course, would have been possible without the people who attended. I’m always gratified (and curious) to read their thoughts and reactions after each year’s conference, and to know more about what captured their attention. Here are two great posts on Day One’s Mastering Experiment Design workshop and Day Two’s Innovation Accounting workshop. And here are a few more general overviews: Top 11 Lean Startup Co. Conference Takeaways and Key Takeaways from the Lean Startup Vegas Conference 2018.

As we head into the new year, I want to thank everyone who helps make Lean Startup a force for change and good in the world. We’re living in a time when legacy institutions of all kinds--political, educational, medical, journalistic--are being attacked. It’s our job to come together to build new ones that more accurately reflect and support the way our world works. I believe Lean Startup is one way to identify and create these new institutions.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

An interview with founder, author, and Lean Startup Conference 2018 speaker Aaron Dignan

Aaron Dignan--who has described himself as "obsessed with organizational adaptivity"--is one of the speakers at this year’s Lean Startup Conference in Las Vegas, where he’ll be talking about How to Reinvent Your Organization.
I recently spoke with Aaron about everything from his work to his forthcoming book, Brave New Work, his personal theory about why best practices aren't usually the best, and how he uses lean startup at the drugstore.


What is work in the 21st century? And how does the company you founded, The Ready, support it?

For me, work is all human endeavor—the things we choose to make real in the world. But overall, work has increasingly become focused on solving complex problems or creating complex solutions. The mechanical things that are simple, or even complicated, are automated or getting automated, and getting farmed away in different ways. What's left are these complex problem and creation spaces. What we do is try to help make sure that the way of working—the operating system, the culture, the organization's design—is well-matched to that challenge. Because right now we mostly operate on a factory model from a hundred years ago, which is all about the linear. What we do at The Ready about adapting to the non-linear.
What are the differences between The Ready and How do they complement each other? was a side project that started when I was running another company. I co-founded it with a bunch of like-minded people. The idea was: could we get an informal network of people together that believed the way we work is broken and had to change, and could that be a gathering place and galvanizing brand? And to a certain extent it was and it is. It's been interesting to see the conference and meetups around the world happen. At the same time, I felt like weak ties meant that people didn't actually collaborate all that much. They popped in and out. But there weren't a variety of meaningful collaborations happening. I was much more interested in creating a network with more sharing and a faster learning cycle. 

So, I created The Ready. The Ready is about strong ties.  It’s for people who are doing this work day in and day out, and who want to be part of an organization that's trying to do that globally and accelerate the pattern of change.

There’s section in the manifesto that I want to ask you about. It’s focused on the relationship between profit and purpose and how it’s evolving. The growing consent is that profit is not the be all and end all, and a lot of that is coming from customers. More people are saying, “If your company does things that we think are bad, or if we don't support your mission, we’re not going to go with you.”

There are plenty of shitty things about advanced capitalism. But one of the good things about it is that customers move from simply meeting their needs to thinking about the relationship they have with what they buy, own, and consume. So not only do I want local bread because I need to eat, but now I have the privilege, as someone who operates in a mature economy, to say, "I would like the bread company to serve the community, to be organic, and to be connected to values that are meaningful to me." Because we're so consumerist as a culture, we increasingly build our identity around the meaning behind the things we buy—not just the thing itself, but the story it tells about us. I think that has been driving and accelerating what you're talking about. I also think there's been this recognition that, looking at the last 100 years, we’ve played out the very simple economic logic of, "If everyone just pursues profit, the world's going to turn out great." The environment would beg to differ. The political system would beg to differ. And so would legions of employees. So there's a lot of data that something is off. I’m fond of the Peter Drucker quote, "Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don't have enough of it you're out of the game. But if you think your life is about breathing you're really missing something." Breathing's great, but it's not the whole game. I think both of those realizations have manifested at the same time and people want more.
What’s an area you think could use innovation transformation that no one has tried yet? Go as far as you want.

I have a silly regressive answer and I have a serious answer. My silly answer is I think that all the American auto manufacturers should just bring back their designs from the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, but with all electric drive. Wouldn't you want to drive a '66 Lincoln Continental?? I’d love to see the innovation of returning to the source, returning to the inspiration for things. It's the same reason that people like Mexican Coke—back to sugar, back to what’s pure.

My serious answer is that nobody has built an organization at Fortune 500 scale that isn't just completely beholden to shareholders and analysts. I would love to see a truly cooperative, truly participatory organization at a global scale that exists expressly for the purpose of making the world a better place. The shareholders, most of whom would be employees and customers, would buy into that from day one. Platform co-ops are really interesting to me. A platform co-op version of Uber, or Lyft, or DoorDash would be very, very interesting. What if we could all just say, "You know what? Facebook isn't really serving us all that well as a society. Why don't we create a platform co-op version with the skills and deep pockets that don’t usually show up for public service? Everybody pays their fair share, and we’ll do our best to save ourselves from ourselves. The venture fund would be called “Better Angels” (of our nature)."

What’s your go-to stress relief method? 
I have a very unsophisticated answer, which is that I watch Netflix. I watch a movie or immersive TV series to get out of my head. And then I can relax my body and mind a little bit. I'm equal opportunity in this sphere. I love it all. My favorite recent show is probably Succession on HBO. That one is just so good, so dramatic, and so related to all the nonsense that goes on in the world of business.

What’s the best practice that you've seen completely fail at a company?  

I like to say that “best practices” are, by definition, average practices. If everybody thinks it's a good idea, then it's average, and everybody's doing it. So, a best practice leads you to have neutral, normal, expected results. I'm generally skeptical of that. Then, if you start to talk about complexity and the nature of the world we work in now, best practices don’t really apply. There's only emerging practice. You can't say, "This is it, and it's guaranteed to work next time and the time after that.”

So, I think the best practices that go wrong most often are the ones that are extremely specific and detailed and dogmatic. If you see a checklist for something that you know intuitively is complex and dynamic, run. For example, I think most best practices around performance management right now suck. Talent development, training, all of it. We spend billions and billions of dollars on training every year and it's all wrong. It's all sages on stages and regurgitation, when we actually learn best by doing--and failing--in the real world.

Is there something unconventional that you’ve been surprised to see work?

Actually, what I continue to be surprised by is the power of transparency to drive appropriate behavior. So, for example, you hear, "Oh, we're spending too much on travel and we really want to lock it down." The normal move is to put a travel freeze in place and install a review and approval process, get strategic partners, and set up a platform that everybody has to go through. But several times I’ve seen cases where an unconventional leader just says, "What if we simply publish what everybody spends on travel every week in a place where everyone can see it?"

And what happens is, people spend money a lot more intelligently because they don't want to look like an idiot or an ass in front of their peers. People notice that their colleagues have tips, and tricks, and hacks, and places they go to book travel, and they get smarter as a system. So, sometimes I think just shining a light is the solution to 95% of our problems. Make it transparent and let things emerge.

Is there a common factor that connects all types of organizations that have the desire to transform? What’s the difference between companies that still have their heads in the sand and say, "What do you mean we're not doing assembly line production system anymore?" and the ones who say, "Okay, we’ve got to get with the program here."? Where does that drive come from, no matter how poorly executed.

I don't run into companies that don't want to transform anymore. Literally every company I talk to is like, "Help us, we're too bureaucratic," or, "We're stuck," or, "Something needs to change." What I think separates the companies that actually succeed is that they make time for it. They kill projects, take meetings off the schedule, and make it okay to slip on some of their goals in order to make time for change. It's the same as going to the gym when you hire a personal trainer. You can be so excited about it, but if you never go, you don't get six-pack abs. And if you fail for lack of showing up, you definitely don’t yell at the trainer, right? In that scenario, you know you're to blame. For some reason, in corporate transformation people always ask, "Why aren't we changing?" Well, if you can't make an hour a week for a retrospective, if you can't make an hour a week to check in with your peers, if you can't make an hour a week to learn new practices, you're going to fail. I think the common success factor is that winning teams sweat the change they seek, and they make it a priority that’s held sacred.

Let’s discuss innovation transformation techniques applied to the everyday life of Aaron Dignan.

I feel like I do Lean Startup when I'm picking toothpaste. Standing in the aisle, I’m thinking: Okay, so what do I value? What are my assumptions? How long is this experiment going last? Thirty minutes later--in the midst of my sprint plan--my wife demands that I pick something and leave. That test-and-learn ethos is deeply ingrained in my family. It’s about maintaining a fitness landscape of different bets and different approaches, seeing what works, and then tweaking it. I do a weekly meeting with my family where we talk about what's working, what's not, and what do we want to try? We recently got a  piece of advice from my son’s school about the role of diet in behavior. Your gut biome influences your neurotransmitters and mental health in innumerable ways, and we really underestimate this in Western society. So, my wife and I decided to try an experiment. We decided to treat our child like a diabetic for a weekend. From Friday to Monday we did no sugar and no refined carbs—substituting fruit, protein, whole grains, all the stuff you think kids won’t eat. His blood sugar was our steering metric and his behavior was our feedback loop. And guess what? He was an angel. It was bonkers. My wife and I kept looking at each other with saucer eyes like, "Are you seeing what I’m seeing right now?" And then sure enough there was a birthday party a couple days later. Out came the candy and everything flipped like a switch. The data told a story.

So no pivot?

Yeah, exactly! Well I think the question becomes how do you make that sustainable, right? So, you have a pattern that's positive. Can it last for a week? What are the disruptors that are going to pull that train off the tracks, and what are your counter-measures?

Your upcoming book, Brave New Work, is all about how and why we need to change the way we work. You’ve clearly spent a lot of time thinking about that, but is there something surprising you discovered doing your research for it? Something that turned out to be really different from what you thought the trajectory of your research was going to show?

Brave New Work has three parts. The first one explains the history of how we got here—tracing the line from Frederick Winslow Taylor's 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management to the present bureaucratic nightmare. The second part of the book looks at the organizational operating system and the practices and principles that make up how we work. The third part is about how to change that system. If you buy into the story I’m telling in the beginning and you want do it, what does that journey look like when change management as usual won’t work?

The fact is, that between agile, lean, open-source, teal, and dozens of other philosophies of work out there, there are a lot of principles floating around--a lot of wisdom and aphorisms and ways of thinking and mindsets. I thought I was going to have to explore fourteen different ways to think just to set the stage for the book.

What blew me away as I started to really build a mental map of all that stuff, was that it all stemmed from just two mindsets. When you put them together, they explain all the thinking and new development that I've been seeing for years.
The first is what I call being people positive, which is basically self-determination theory with a dose of humanism. People are inherently good, inherently capable of taking responsibility, and naturally wired to develop and grow. We seek out learning opportunities and ways to self-actualize. And, people are chameleons, so if you put us in an environment that treats us like criminals we will act like criminals (for the most part). And if you put us in an environment that treats us like scholars we will act like scholars (for the most part). On the whole, you get what you expect to get—what you hold space for.

The second mindset is complexity conscious, which simply means the world is not one dimensional anymore. It's a changing, dynamic system—interconnected and super scaled. So you need to be conscious of the context you're operating in. When you look at a problem space, is it complex? Is it complicated? Is it chaotic? Is it disordered? Is it simple? We need to be aware of our context and then bring the right tools to the job. That's where the whole movement surrounding Agile and Lean fits into this. How do you make sense of a world where things are changing rapidly? You test and learn, and you start sensing a lot more often.

The analogy I like to use is a chest of gold in the middle of the room. If the lights are on and you simply need to get it out, you just create a little assembly line, and work like lemmings to get it from point A to point B. It’ll work like a charm. But if I turn the lights off and start moving the gold around silently, then how might you operate? That's the context we live and work in now. What you would do is make small, careful, measured movements. You would over-communicate—sounding out to other people in the room, "I'm feeling this, I'm seeing this, Did you hear that?" And then when you got a little bit of action you'd seize it. A complexity conscious mindset is about evaluating the room and choosing the right approach.

The truly complexity conscious person might be a little unfeeling in their desire to do experiments and find out what wins and what works. But the people positive person would be concerned with the human-centricity of our approach. We have to honor the sanctity of what it is to be a human being, to be part of a community, and to be in membership with each other. Hold both these mindsets in your head and they tug on each other, saying “Learn as fast as you can without compromising your humanity and the impact of your actions.” It’s critical that we hear both voices because we face enormous challenges and opportunities that call us to be our best—to create a future of work (and of culture) that we can thrive in.
Lean Startup Conference 2018 is sold out, but you can still register for the livestream. I hope you’ll join us that way.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

A conversation about diversity, inclusion, and design with Lean Startup Conference 2018 speaker Liz Jackson

Ragen Chastain, our Inclusion and Accessibility Manager for this year's Lean Startup Conference, spoke recently with Liz Jackson, an advocate and consultant and founder of The Disabled List, who will be presenting at the conference on Designing with Disability.

We created Ragen’s role to further our long-standing efforts to make sure the conference is open to all. A lot of important initiatives fall under her purview, including creating a diverse group of people at every level; creating ticket levels, scholarships, volunteer, and livestream opportunities so that money isn’t a barrier to participation in the conference; and creating a comprehensive Accessibility and Inclusion Guide and enforced Code of Conduct that make our values and expectations clear. In addition, Ragen is in charge of outreach to affinity groups and organizations for people who are typically underrepresented in order to find speakers, sponsors, and volunteers. We want a conference that welcomes and centers the voices of those who have been traditionally marginalized and excluded, including People of Color, disabled people/people with disabilities, LGBTQI people, and women. Diversity makes events and organizations better because amazing ideas and innovations lie outside of our own experiences, and people from different backgrounds can teach one another new approaches to problem-solving. We want to be a part of building a future where diversity, inclusion, and accessibility are expected, celebrated, and affirmed.

We're on the path and moving forward with purpose, but we know we have plenty of work to do. That's why we have an open door policy, as well as specific opportunities, to provide feedback on how we can improve our efforts. If you have thoughts or suggestions, please e-mail Ragen at:

The conference is sold out, but you can still register for our free livestream:

Meanwhile, here’s Ragen and Liz’s conversation about Liz’s work on disability design, how she came to it, and more--including some thoughts on Stephen Hawking.

Would you start by telling us a bit about yourself, and how you got started working with disability and design?

On March 30th of 2012, I woke up to a new body. That was when I began to understand my lifelong relationship with disability. I never knew it, but I had always had a relationship with disability, and it wasn't until I had the clarity of a drastic change in my body that I realized what it meant, for me, to be disabled. To everyone around me, that meant that I had lost the ability to choose my body. But it wasn’t the change in my body that pained me--it was that I could no longer choose products and narratives that reflected my identity. For example, why do I have so much choice with eyeglass frames but absolutely none with canes? I first set out to resolve this frustration by creating an organization that would provide more choice in the marketplace; I was going to design more canes. But what the last six years have taught me was that this is not a simple problem requiring a simple solution; it’s a profound lack of infrastructure that keeps oppressive models of disability in place.

How are you tackling that problem?

Even though I have no formal design training, I am now the founder of The Disabled List, which is a disability-led, self-advocacy organization that is creating opportunities in design; be it through product, branding, marketing or other creative fields. I fundamentally believe it’s my lack of formal education, and the ways I’ve hacked my knowledge that have put me in this unique position to reassess the status quo. The life of a disabled person is spent cultivating an intuitive creativity — allowing us to re-form a world not shaped for our bodies. Disability ingenuity is responsible for omnipresent designs such as the bicycle, touchscreen technology, and cruise control. Through integrating specific, disability-led ways of knowing into design pedagogy and practice, The Disabled List advocates for a future as yet unimagined.

Why is it important to design with and invest in disabled people rather than simply creating solutions for disability?

The presumption that disabled people simply want to be fixed or that only we want things fixed is wholly inaccurate. Sure, sometimes we want those things. What we really want though, is to participate and to be truly seen--meaning accurately represented--in society.

Your question makes me think of an ad that made the rounds on social media when Nike signed their first disabled athlete. It wasn’t even 4 seconds into the video, when Nike described marathon runner Justin Gallegos as someone who suffers from Cerebral Palsy. On World Cerebral Palsy Day! Their word choice of ‘suffers’ demonstrates how charities or brand initiatives tend to position our bodies as a tragedy so that they can either raise money or bolster their bottom line.

As the ad progresses, the viewer grows aware that Nike is going to surprise Justin at the finish line with a contract. The entire narrative struck me as preposterous because I had never before seen a sports apparel company or team ‘surprise’ an athlete with a professional contract as a gift. If you Google ‘signing day’ you will see image after image of athletes seated at tables in front of contracts, pen in hand, treated as professionals. The mere fact that Nike felt they needed to market the signing of this particular athlete as a ‘surprise’ or ‘gift’ rather than a transaction tells me that they don’t see him as valuable. They view their charitable gesture as a brand enhancer.

How does your work specifically address that kind of problem?

I’m trying to shed light on the ways disabled people are prevented from participating in design, marketing and investment decisions that presumably should impact us. Had Nike hired a disabled person as a decision maker in the process, I assure you that Justin Gallegos would have been sitting at a table with a pen and a contract, and treated as a valuable signee. Justin should serve as a reminder that this emerging disability market, which is larger than the size of China, cannot be tapped until disabled people are valued at the helm of culture globally.

What about events? How can event planners do a better job of incorporating disability into cultural practices?

Events must prioritize access. This can play out in a myriad of ways, but I’ll use my experiences thus far with the upcoming Lean Startup Conference. In my initial correspondences with Lean Startup, I hedged my participation on whether accommodations such as captioning and transcripts of video and audio content would be made. Lean Startup made this easy on me. Thank you Lean Startup!

I was glad to see how Lean Startup has already incorporated access into its ethos. When an attendee registers for the Lean Startup Conference, they’re asked to complete a registration form which has a box that can be checked if they require accommodations. A representative from Lean Startup then follows up with that person directly to ensure they will have full access to all of the events. I’m increasingly seeing this as common practice for events and hope it becomes the status quo in coming years.

Beyond accommodations, my work is focused on finding ways for disability to influence the culture of these events. How do I ensure that I’m not the only disabled speaker? If I’m the first disabled person invited to speak, how do I ensure that I’m not tokenized and that the door remains open for my disabled peers, either on that same stage or at future events? I now serve on advisory panels for such conferences as SXSW, ensuring both access and opportunities are incorporated.

What other projects do you currently have underway?

The Disabled List started out as a list of creative disabled people who have a background in disability studies and are available to consult. It has been a massive success; people on The Disabled List have been brought on to consult with such brands as Wells Fargo, Google Creative Lab, Volkswagen and more.

Over the course of the last year, I started The WITH Fellowship, which facilitates a process of designing with, rather than for, disability by partnering disabled creatives with top design studios and creative spaces. The first cohort, which started in September 2018, partnered four creative disabled New Yorkers WITH SYPartners, Frog Design, Pollack Textiles and Gibney Dance. Our second cohort runs from February 4 to April 29, 2019 — applications for prospective fellows and organizations in New York City and San Francisco are now open.

I recently came across a quote by the late Stephen Hawking, where he said time and space are finite in extent, but they don't have any boundary or edge. As I read it, I recalled wondering if he was talking about the universe, or if he was in fact, talking about his disability. At the very least, I felt that his disability must have informed his perceptions of the universe profoundly. As I read it and read it and read it, I began to think about the inherent conflict of Universal Design in disability. There’s this presumption that you can make an object or a system that works, as intended, for every human being on the planet. But disabled people will be the first to tell you that there is always going to be an exception, this is our foundational experience of the world. Nothing is universal. But what Stephen Hawking taught me was that the work we do in disability, while not universal, is expansive. It expands our understanding of humanity. It expands what we have the access to do. And it expands what we have the freedom to pursue. I have found this miniscule pocket in the universe, a black hole if you will, and by letting it consume me, I have discovered the world.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

An Interview with Author and Lean Startup Conference 2018 Speaker Giff Constable

One of the speakers at this year’s Lean Startup Conference, which kicks off on November 14th in Las Vegas, is Giff Constable. Giff is a repeat entrepreneur whose companies include Neo, a product innovation consulting firm where he worked with organizations like the Mayo Clinic and Time, Inc. before it was acquired by Pivotal. He was most recently VP of product at Axial, a fintech startup that connected medium-sized businesses with capital providers and buyers, where he oversaw product management, engineering and design.

At the conference, he’ll be talking about transforming your organization’s culture to support innovation and running two workshops: one on Mastering Experiment Design, and one on Customer Discovery. He’s also written books on both of those topics: Talking to Humans, published in 2014, and now, a follow-up volume called Testing with Humans, just out this week. Frank Rimalovski of NYU collaborated on both. We recently spoke about customer discovery, experiments, and his writing habits and process.

Testing with Humans uses a fictional story of two entrepreneurs building a soccer ball sensor company. How did you come up with that example and what makes it useful for discussing experiments?

The story is really a composite of multiple real situations. I just blended them into a unified arc. Business fiction can be tricky to get right, but it did allow me to get a lot of ideas across with one coherent example rather than twenty fragmented ones.

As for why a soccer ball? That's easy — I'm a huge English Premier League fan (go Bournemouth!), so how could I resist? In all seriousness, in both this book and its prequel, I wanted the entrepreneurs to have a product idea that many people could relate to. I chose physical products both times so that the concepts didn't feel specific to tech or software. Experiments and customer discovery are powerful across all types of business.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while gathering the research for the book?

I guess the most shocking thing came from talking to my former colleague David Bland. I was surprised to hear him say how many people, across his coaching, are still struggling with the basic concept of landing pages. I would like to think that we're further along than that. I always have to remind myself how long it takes for things to seep into widespread practice, especially things that fight against our cognitive biases.

What step do people most often try to skip in the experimentation process?

I'm going to give you a three-part answer. The first is experiments themselves. Everyone knows that they should run experiments, just like they know they should talk to customers, but that doesn't mean they do it. People chase a perception of speed, when in actuality they go slower because of mistaken decisions, big and small, that could have been avoided.

Within experiments, however, it really depends on one's psychological profile. "Do-ers" jump right into experimenting without prioritizing what they really need to learn. "Seat of the pants" types ignore structure and change too many variables in parallel, making it really hard to interpret results. The high-charisma founder usually has a huge problem resisting confirmation bias. The introverts hide behind the experiment, putting data on a pedestal while missing out on the huge insights that come from talking to participants. To do lean startup well, you need to understand your own makeup and challenge your weaknesses.

Lastly, I've learned that for any big, important experiment, it's worth running an experiment about the experiment. In other words, test the design first, before scaling (just like a startup!). This small investment pays dividends with speed and better decisions.

If you had to pick one element that every single experiment needs to have, what would it be?

A very specific quantitative goal, even if it is a guess! I've always seen that if you don't go into an experiment with a clear goal, everything becomes mushy from that point on.

What's the most challenging audience question you've ever had to answer?

That has to be: "How do I know when to kill an idea?" I share a lot of tactics in the book, but there's one area where I absolutely refuse to be prescriptive: decision-making. Everyone has their own context. I certainly do not believe that one experiment should make or break someone's vision. However, I firmly do believe that good experiments will arm you with far better information to make those big, heavy decisions. Unfortunately, they don't let you off the hook of having to make them.

What's one of the best experiments you've seen and why?

The non-profit Taproot Foundation ran an excellent Wizard-of-Oz experiment as they sought to scale, by way of an online application, their historical service of connecting non-profits with pro-bono experts.

Because they had been manually providing this service for years, they could have been cocky about their expertise. Instead, they challenged themselves to ask hard questions. They ran a Wizard-of-Oz experiment that was sharp from top to bottom. They had tight hypotheses statements and quantitative goals. They ran it at an intense pace. They tracked and openly shared their metrics. They talked to participants of the experiment, rather than relying solely on metrics to tell the story. The team also brought their entire organization along for the ride with excellent internal communication. In the process, they ran into unexpected challenges, learned a ton, and ultimately informed a much better final product (found at

It was particularly impressive to see a non-profit, which as a field can be pretty hidebound at times, attempting to work in such an agile and forward-thinking way.

Do you have a daily writing routine when you're working on a book?

This book took years to get out, because I was busy selling a company and then helping to build another startup. I was finally able to build momentum by getting up regularly at 5am. I could get an hour or two of good writing in while fresh, before startup pressures invaded my brain. And I'll admit, my family has been very patient as I've disappeared for weekends at a time.


You can buy Talking to Humans here. You can buy Testing with Humans here. Both books are available to schools and non-profits for free, via a form you can fill out either here or here. Follow Giff on Twitter at: @giffco.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A closer look at Lean Startup Conference 2018

As we put the final touches on Lean Startup Conference 2018, I wanted to take a moment to share more about some of the panels, workshops, and events. For the whole program, please take a look here. We’re looking forward to channeling the energy and excitement attendees bring with them, and to providing opportunities to learn about not just things that have been successful, but missteps and major obstacles that have been overcome--all part of the Lean Startup process.

Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Greylock Partners will be talking about “blitzscaling” with his co-author Chris Yeh, and Stanford Professor Bob Sutton. That’s the growth management strategy that prioritizes speed over efficiency in an environment of uncertainty as an organization scales. It’s the engine that has powered companies including Amazon, Alibaba, and Google. As Hoffman has put it, if starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down, scaling is like “assembling that plane faster then strapping on and igniting a set of jet engines, while still building the wings.” You need the right tools.

Joel Spolsky, CEO of Trello, will be sharing his experiences building Stack Overflow (after 10 years, the 65th most popular website in the world with 12 billion views), Glitch, and Trello. His understanding of the value of building community has informed all of his work, and he views it as an integral part of creating a company. He’ll also talk about what coding can, and should, look like in years to come, a responsibility he takes seriously as he believes that “being a developer gives you an unparalleled opportunity to write the script for the future.”

Kabam, the mobile gaming company, hit a major stumbling block in its early days when its financing was lost due to the 2008 financial collapse. It not only survived but was sold nine years later for $1Billion. Co-founder Holly Liu will walk us through the the decisions that led to that outcome. Among other things, it’s a story about the inestimable value of the pivot, which in this case made the difference--several times--between folding and huge success. Along the way, the company faced challenges while scaling and going global, and she’ll touch on those, too.

In a fireside chat, Kathryn Minshew of The Muse and Brit Morin of Brit + Co will discuss their strategies for acquiring customers and how they continuously innovate to stay ahead of the shifting demands of the millennial generation. Both women started their companies as platforms for sharing information that helps people tap into their natural strengths--professional for Minshew and creative for Morin--and both companies are directly linked to their founder’s own experiences.

Hands-on learning will also a big part of this year’s conference, providing real experience with critical techniques. In the Mastering Experiment Design workshop, participants will come prepared with a risky assumption of their own to build an experiment on, which they can then use to begin testing right away. The essential elements of effective experiments, which are the best tool for making better decisions and assessing risk, will be outlined. The presenters will discuss how to avoid common mistakes as well as provide tools for unlocking the creativity of teams.

The Mastering Customer Discovery workshop will be a forum for practicing and refining customer interview techniques, finding good candidates, and turning what you learn into action. Talking with customers can be a surprisingly tricky thing to get right, so a great customer discovery process is important.

As is the right business model, which is the focus of the Don’t Bet on Your First Business Model workshop. It tackles how to validate a business model in the early stages, using the Lean Canvas tool to look at assumptions about problems, solutions, and sales channels followed by creating hypotheses and experiments to either validate or disprove those assumptions. Every experiment, regardless of its outcome, should be built on a solid foundation, and this workshop shows how to do that.

We’ve also put together a number of case study presentations on fundamentals that will speed and shape your building process in the early days. There’s one on A/B Testing that draws on growth management lessons from KISSmetrics and I Will Teach You To Be Rich to help answer questions like: “What happens when your testing program is set up incorrectly?” It also lays out the 8 tried and true rules of testing that can help you avoid worrying about what you’re testing instead of how you’ll execute the test. This kind of testing, done right, is definitive for creating growth. Another case study takes up Amazon’s practice of “Working Backwards” that’s been so critical to the company’s innovative culture and growth. It will cover how the company is organized to follow this practice, and how its mechanisms actually work on a practical level.

Finally, we know building a business is more than just work. That’s why we’ve put together a panel that looks at the human side of being a founder. Taking Care of Business AND You brings together experts from numerous fields to talk about founder self-care on every front.

Having hundreds of Lean Startup practitioners in the same place is also an ideal time to draw on that other critical resource--the knowledge and experiences of peers. We have no doubt that the conversations and connections will be boundless, in settings that include all of the above and also range from small, conversational Meetups to more structured Lunch and Learns.

We’re looking forward to seeing you in Las Vegas. If you haven’t registered yet, you can do it here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Join me in Downtown Las Vegas on November 14th

In just over a month, I’ll be heading to the Zappos campus in Downtown Las Vegas to meet up with a global community of entrepreneurs at the Lean Startup Conference.

I’m really excited about this year’s program. Whether you’re brand new to Lean Startup, a seasoned practitioner, a founder, or an innovation leader within a global enterprise, you’ll have a chance to learn from and meet some of the most truly innovative thinkers I know. We hope you’ll leave inspired to go back to your organization and take action.

I’ll be taking to the main stage with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, to talk about how his company has overcome critical business challenges and answer your questions. Also featured on the main stage will be Kabam Co-Founder Holly Liu, LinkedIn Co-Founder and CEO Reid Hoffman, Brit + Co Founder and CEO Brit Morin, and Stack Overflow Co-Founder and CEO Joel Spolsky.

There will also be workshops focused around case studies that dive deep into real-world applications of Lean Startup principles across industries and company sizes, including non-profits. Each of you will get to choose an example that applies to your own circumstances, so these hands-on sessions will be not only interactive but super relevant. Some of them cover Lean Startup basics like assessing risk and making assumptions, how to build a great team, how to use A/B testing effectively, and the value of learning from failure. Others explore the ways you can effect real change once Lean Startup has become your standard way of operating, whether in your own company by using innovation accounting--VC-like metered funding and growth boards to assess and either kill or continue projects--or, in a whole different, equally critical realm, by using lean principles to propel social change through programs and education.

A number of panel presentations have been put together as well, to create space for discussion and diverse perspectives. These tackle big issues like how to lead culture transformation inside a large organization, how to use Lean for fundraising in the non-profit world, the huge changes that the Internet of Things is bringing to business, and a conversation about the human side of being a founder.

Each of these workshops and panels is meant to give you a chance to engage with entrepreneurs who’ve experienced--or are experiencing--the same challenges you do, so everyone can learn from each other.

This chance to make lasting connections continues to be thing people most often talk to me about after conferences, and it’s the reason so many of you come back more than once. This year, we’re expanding that network to include entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and innovators from across the world so we can all benefit from even more perspectives. I hope that the evening dinners and receptions we’ve planned, including a special event at the world-famous Mob Museum next to Zappos Campus, will provide yet another way for everyone to connect on a more casual, but equally important, level.

I hope you’ll come to Las Vegas to lend your voice, share your ideas, renew your energy, and explore ideas that will inspire and challenge you.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Lessons Learned: Hugh Molotsi

Innovation within large corporations has more in common with startups than you’d think, but also comes with its own set of challenges. In The Intrapraneur’s Journey, Hugh Molotsi and Jeff Zias share their experiences at Intuit and lay out the guidelines for fostering innovation projects and also an innovative culture within enterprise companies. Here, Hugh Molotsi takes us from skunkworks to large-scale success.

I’ve been very blessed to have had a 22-year career at Intuit where I held various product roles from software developer on QuickBooks for DOS to offering leader on QuickBooks Connected Services. When I left Intuit in 2015, I was VP of Innovation and led Intuit Labs, Intuit’s internal incubator.

One of the highlights of my time at Intuit was being part of a skunkworks team in 1999 that developed Intuit’s first payment service, the QuickBooks Merchant Account Service. After months of advocating for the idea of allowing QuickBooks users to process credit card payments from their customers inside the product, we were finally given the green light to proceed but only had 12 weeks to make it happen.

We were severely under-resourced (initially the team was just a Product Manager, Scott Baird and me) and had to overcome significant organizational pushback from people who thought the whole idea was terrible and that what we were doing was dangerous. Somehow, with hard work and the help of a few key colleagues, we were able to deliver a functioning service to customers on time. Through the great work of many other Intuit employees, Intuit Payments would eventually become a roughly $1B business for Intuit and a key enabling feature for over half of Intuit’s small business revenue. I was generously rewarded the Intuit Founders Award in 2011 for helping get it started.

On reflection, I’ve half-jokingly said that the only reason our skunkworks service saw the light of day was because our group wasn’t well managed at the time. Perhaps if the big-wigs had realized the significance of what we were developing, they would have demanded more detailed plans or assigned the project to a much more senior leader. Flying just enough below the radar and plain luck seemed to be as important to our success as anything else.

Many years later, a group of Intuit employees were asked to develop a program that would give employees autonomous time as a way of increasing employee engagement. For personal inspiration, I thought back to my time on the Merchant Account Service. Imagine if we could create an environment were breakthrough innovations didn’t require luck or flying below the radar? What if the company was supportive of skunkworks projects, ensuring that small passionate teams of employees didn’t have to expend so much energy fighting against organizational pushback?

With this in mind, we started Intuit’s Unstructured Time program in 2005, where employees could spend 10% working on their own projects. The genesis of Unstructured Time was how I met my co-author Jeff Zias, who proved to be an instrumental thought leader and the key driver to getting employees excited about the new program. Jeff and I would go on to spend a decade working together helping cultivate Intuit’s innovation programs.

Unstructured Time has been an unqualified success for Intuit, yielding new offerings like mobile tax and small business applications, the move from desktop software to online “cloud” products, and numerous product improvements and internal process improvements.

Along the way, we had the privilege of spending time with innovation leaders at companies like Google, Atlassian, and LinkedIn who generously shared what has worked for them and what mistakes to avoid.

Jeff and I have shared all of these lessons in our new book The Intrapreneur’s Journey. We’ve seen the rewards of developing a culture of innovation where employees are empowered to work on their own ideas. The road to creating such a culture is riddled with challenges and pitfalls, and our book will help you avoid these pitfalls while creating an environment that empowers your employees. And empowered, energized employees innovate greatly improved experiences for your customers, ultimately driving growth.

The Intrapraneur’s Journey is available to order for a limited time (only until September 22, 2018) on Kickstarter.

You can also follow the authors on Twitter: @hughmolotsi and @jeffzias