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Cover image for "The Lean Startup" 10 Years On: Have We Failed?

"The Lean Startup" 10 Years On: Have We Failed?

awwsmm profile image Andrew (he/him) ・4 min read

I was going to write a more traditional book review for The Lean Startup (2011) by Eric Ries, which I just finished listening to today, until I got to the epilogue. Let me give you a bit of background, and then I'll explain why I'd like to open this up to a broader discussion.


The Lean Startup promotes ideas which Ries has been developing since at least his time at IMVU around how startups should be nurtured and managed. Ries defines a startup as

"...a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty."

And, throughout the book, applies this label to a variety of organisations, including stereotypical tech startups, but also government agencies and manufacturing. An institution doesn't need to be creating the next hot social network or IoT gadget to fall under this definition. Any group of people that are trying to break new ground and deliver something new can learn from this book's advice.

Ries argues that startups should seek to achieve validated learning, wherein changes to a product or service are dictated by indirect customer feedback, and not by hunches or predefined plans. As Ries stresses throughout this work:

"...planning and forecasting are only accurate when based on a long, stable operating history and a relatively static environment. Startups have neither."

"Indirect" because consumers often don't really know what they want, or don't know how to express it properly. "Validated" because the approach should be scientific -- develop a hypothesis, carry out experiments, and determine whether your hypothesis was correct or incorrect

"If the plan is to see what happens, a team is guaranteed to succeed -- at seeing what happens – but won’t necessarily gain validated learning. If you cannot fail, you cannot learn."

A/B testing, MVPs, and the lean methodology were revolutionary only a few decades ago, but are now the default mode of working for organisations looking to break new ground. In this sense, The Lean Startup can be seen as a sort of spiritual successor to The Mythical Man-Month, whose ideas were also unorthodox at the time, but are now mainstream.

But the end of the book is what really got to me.

In the epilogue, Ries talks about the precursor to the lean methodology movement -- scientific management. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American mechanical engineer, sought to improve the efficiency of businesses. Dividing businesses up into functional departments, dividing workloads into tasks, streamlining production lines to reduce waste and inefficiency -- all of these are obvious today, but less so in Taylor's time. "Taylor effectively invented what we now consider just 'management'", notes Ries, as well as "the idea that work can be studied and improved through conscious effort."

"The revolution that he unleashed has been -- in many ways -- too successful. Whereas Taylor preached science as a way of thinking, many people confused his message with the rigid techniques he advocated. ... Many of these ideas proved extremely harmful, and required the efforts of later theorists and managers to undo."

Ries goes on to recount an anecdote told to him by someone who had attended one of his recent conference talks. This person took Ries' advice to heart and promoted validated learning, the five whys, and other aspects of the lean startup within his business. As a result, he gained a reputation as a brilliant engineer within his company. But his superiors didn't actually learn to follow lean methodology, despite his proselytising -- they simply thought they needed to improve their hiring process to find more "10X engineers", like him.

I fear that this story is a microcosm of lean methodology as a whole, as it is interpreted and applied today.

Just as those in Frederick Taylor's time couldn't see the forest for the trees -- rigidly applying the techniques of scientific management without fully understanding or appreciating their motivation, or significance -- some startups today apply "lean methodology" without really understanding what that means.

I sometimes get the impression that Gantt charts, Kanban boards, and Jira tickets -- while still very useful when used correctly -- have simply become a way of signaling "we do lean development", without actually following lean principles.

At their cores, both scientific management and the lean methodology are driven by a scientific approach to understanding and improving the development of products and services. But I get the feeling that, while some companies are doing actual science, others are just filling their laboratories with equipment without ever performing any experiments.

Posted on May 26 by:

awwsmm profile

Andrew (he/him)

@awwsmm

Got a Ph.D. looking for dark matter, but not finding any. Now I code full-time. Je parle un peu français. dogs > cats

Discussion

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I think the biggest issue is that many companies try to apply lean or agile methodologies only in the product/development team. It requires a change in the whole organisation to truly be lean/agile.
And even when they apply it in the product team, it usually takes the form of Scrum, which is not lean nor agile in my opinion.

 

I sometimes get the impression that Gantt charts, Kanban boards, and Jira tickets -- while still very useful when used correctly -- have simply become a way of signaling "we do lean development", without actually following lean principles.

Ooooooh yes. I'm not sure there's ever been a time when that wasn't the case post "lean movement".

Almost nobody who uses the terms from the book actually read the book and are adopting them in context. They're mostly used as argument winners to jam home the point you otherwise wanted to make.

All that being said, I can't imagine living in a software world that didn't have this book. It put some words to some fairly universal truths about the nature of uncertainty and the need to think in contingencies instead of rigid pre-determined plans.

 

Almost nobody who uses the terms from the book actually read the book and are adopting them in context. They're mostly used as argument winners to jam home the point you otherwise wanted to make.

I've had the unfortunate experience of working with people where this book was essentially their bible, and they still managed to take pieces wayyyyy out of context and incorporate wasteful practices in the name of being "lean"... And "winning" arguments as you say. 😞Welp, I guess it's like the actual Bible as well! 🤣

 

It's like any methodology, philosophy, etc... majority of people won't apply as intended and over time it will become over-processed and become it's own antithesis. Lean Startup has some good nuggets, just like 6-sigma, agile, XP, and others.

I've always found it amusing how he was able to sell a book about being lean that's 80% filler. 😂

 

I've seen it, you've seen it, we all will see that new super hero brought in to transform, reinvent, mould, and spin dreams of the future.

But what won't happen is fixing the root cause for hiring that person.

The reason is, people are skeptical. They just want to keep their jobs. Most of them have endured the toxic environment there for years. They all have PTSD or simply distrust the new stuff.

For the techs deep in the trenches, the language they use is different. They don't speak buzzwords, theorys and new ways. They speak technical speak.

Ultimately, new leaders usually mean more pressure to satisfy the customer. More pressure in and of itself just makes people quit, unless there is a logical collaboration of what needs to be done.

Agile was supposed to be about collaboration but easily became the very tool to measure what's not being done according to the planners. And therein lies the issue.

Until the planners, managers and grunts all speak the same language, there's always going to be miscommunication. Miscommunication breeds distrust. All of this while the customer is getting smarter and wants more. Kind of a nice problem to have...