Even though it’s a methodology designed for product management teams, Lean Startup provides a lot of good concepts and principles for project managers looking to make sure their projects are successful. And while the word “startup” is in the name, its core tenets can actually be applied to any organization, whether a startup or a Fortune 500 company.
“The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build—the thing customers want and will pay for—as quickly as possible. In other words, the Lean Startup is a new way of looking at the development of innovative new products that emphasize fast iteration and customer insight, a huge vision, and great ambition, all at the same time.” – The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries
If we take this quote from author and Lean Startup pioneer Eric Ries and replace the phrases “a startup” and “Lean Startup” with the phrase “an organization,” the statement would still be true. Any organization wants to figure out the right thing to build as quickly as possible, not just startups. With agile development being the latest craze, we all want to emphasize fast iteration, and experience has taught us all that customer insight is at the core of success.
Many of the lessons and principles in Lean Startup are indeed tailored to the needs of entrepreneurs and new endeavors; however, many of them also apply to project management initiatives in any company. 50% of features and functions are rarely or never used, while 30% get used sometimes or infrequently, according to recent Standish Group research. Organizations need a way to figure out the right amount of features and functions to build so that users adopt solutions and customers are satisfied. Adopting the Lean Startup approach will help.
Lean Startup is based on the tried-and-true scientific approach that we all learned for the first time back in elementary school. The process is simple and can be applied to project management initiatives:
1. Create hypotheses.
One of the major goals of a project is to figure out the right thing to build as quickly as possible, meaning the thing that customers want and will pay for. A traditional project starts out with a problem statement, vision, business objectives, and the set of features that make up the solution. According to Lean Startup, these requirements are only hypotheses at this point—educated guesses.
For each feature of the solution, the project team has researched customer needs and prioritized scope according to alignment with organizational strategy. Each feature can be written as a hypothesis:
“We believe that [building this feature] [for these people] will achieve [this outcome.] We will know we are successful when we see [this signal from the market.]”—Ries
This set of hypotheses will be tested in the next couple steps by building only the features about which the hypotheses are written.
2. Deliver minimum viable product.
To validate that our set of hypotheses is correct, the project team builds the minimum viable product so that they can get feedback before moving forward. The minimum viable product consists of only the most critical features to achieve the project’s vision. More features and functionality will be added in later iterations, but all the project team needs to focus on now is building a product that only includes core features. It’s usually delivered as a prototype or only to a select group of users.
The minimum viable product is a good way of ensuring you’re satisfying customers. Focusing efforts on the minimum viable product provides a feedback loop to guide development and helps to ensure the solution provides enough value for user adoption.
3. Get feedback.
After the minimum viable product is built, the project team works on getting feedback and measuring results to understand the actual value delivered. Retrospectives and meetings with customers may be necessary. In this step, the project team compares the received comments with the hypotheses created at the beginning of the project.
The purpose of this step is to achieve Validated Learning. According to Ries in The Lean Startup, validated learning is the process of demonstrating empirically that a team has discovered valuable truths about a startup’s present and future business prospects. This iterative process of validated learning is useful for ensuring your project teams always deliver the most value possible with the least amount of effort.
4. Repeat, pivoting if necessary.
If the feedback we received in the last step is not satisfactory and does not meet the needs of the project, then the project manager needs to decide how to pivot. A pivot is a major strategic change toward a new direction. Sometimes, structural course corrections are necessary to meet the goal of the project. It’s best to know about these changes as soon as possible, which is why we deliver the solution in increments as minimum viable products.
If the feedback aligns with our hypotheses, then we continue on down the path of the project lifecycle, delivering functionality in small increments and pivoting only when necessary. This iterative process is continued until the company achieves a desirable product-market fit, or until the product is deemed non-viable.