Six Questions from the Lean Startup Tour at Pivotal Labs

December 8, 2014 Jason Fraser

pivotal labs tour

Tim McCoy gives a tour of Pivotal Labs to Lean Startup Conference attendees.

As a kickoff to the Lean Startup Conference this week, Pivotal hosted two tours of our San Francisco office. At the end of each tour we did a quick Q & A session. We got some great questions about how we use Lean Startup with our clients, so I’ve tried to capture them here

1. Is there a one-size-fits-all Lean Startup process that you use here at Labs?

Every client is different, and every product is different, so no. We offer several services to our clients, including helping them to identify the right project to build, helping them to validate their assumptions about a single project, and working on validation with them in-line with ongoing projects (that is, helping to look critically at their assumptions and to construct experiments that help them test those assumptions). We use the right tool for each job, and we never want to apply process where none is necessary. Less is more.

2. I imagine you have a broad base of clients (from startups all the way to big enterprises). Are there differences in the ways in which you have to interact with those clients?

Absolutely. The biggest difference is that for startup companies you get to have all the right people in the room by default. Usually the founders are right there with you, so you don’t have to worry about “pop-up” stakeholders. With complex clients we find that we have to work harder to manage stakeholders, build trust, and get people to feel understood. Finding and including everyone who needs to believe in the decisions made throughout the project can be a challenge with complex organizations.

3. Does Lean Startup apply to hardware?

We don’t build hardware projects at Pivotal Labs, but I’ve talked with a lot of people who do. The cycle time is longer (depending on the kinds of experiments you need to do), but the mindset is the same. You have to aim for low-fidelity prototyping and find creative ways to test value propositions.

4. How do you work with clients who are committed to a pre-defined path and are not allowing validation (or invalidation) to change that path?

We work really hard to get clients to focus on the value that they want to deliver to customers, but honestly sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Once a complex client has decided what they want to build, deviation from the path can sometimes be prohibitively complicated. This is usually for “people” reasons; at some point in the past, structures have been put in place to control the product development process. These controls were probably established for good reason, but they don’t always support delivering customer value. What they generally aim to support is completing projects on time and on-budget. It’s hard to fight against so much legacy process (and culture). In these cases, we try to get the client working as far toward Lean as they’re able to go. If there’s resistance in one direction, we move toward areas of less resistance. Ultimately it’s more important that the client understand the value of Lean Startup process than applying it perfectly to one specific project.

5. How are metrics being used for validation at Pivotal Labs?

For the most part, the validation we’re doing with our clients is at very early stages in product development, and at that point we look for direct and qualitative customer feedback. We encourage clients to think about the kinds of value that they most want to deliver their customers through their products. Once that’s clear, we can instrument for collecting quantitative data that that will prove or disprove that customers are getting what they need. We guide people toward choosing no more than three core metrics to keep track of, and to only measure if they’re willing to let the results guide their behavior. If the metrics data won’t change what you do, there’s no point in even looking at the numbers.

6. How does Lean Startup apply to “business as usual” (as opposed to a new project).

Really it’s the mind-set. When the understanding sinks in that you assume more than you know, then it’s pretty easy to start identifying those assumptions. The next step is to decide which ones are worth testing. You can’t test everything, and some assumptions just aren’t that important, so just choose the biggies. This mind-set can apply to any kind of work. We’ve applied this thinking to HR teams and marketing teams, and it only takes a little extension of the metaphors to see how it works. Your day-to-day life on a product team may be more about optimization than about creating a new product, but you can still keep these ideas in mind and experiment small before committing to big, risky builds.

We’re really excited to be the Presenting Sponsor of the Lean Startup Conference this year, and I’m excited to meet more people and carry on this conversation.

About the Author

Jason Fraser

Jason Fraser is a Director of Agile Practice Leadership Enablement at Pivotal. He was also a co-founder of the Innovation and Transformation Practice at Pivotal Labs.

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