Lean Startup Principles Are Not a Framework: The Lean Startup Toolkit

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The lean startup is often treated as a full framework which is wrong, it is more of a lean startup toolkit – i.e. a set of tools, principles and learnings that can help make a startup successful.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to apply lean startup principles to environments outside of typical tech product startups. I really believe that there’s a lot that can be taken from the lean startup movement and applied in alternate scenarios.

The Lean Startup Toolkit

This first started to dawn on me after a workshop at lean conf last year. There was a lot of talk about the lean startup principles being more of a toolkit than a framework, and that differing business models may require that toolkit to be applied differently. This really struck a note with me because I’m involved in at least 2 very distinct working environments (one being a more obvious startup, the other working for corporate contracts) and I see definite opportunities to apply lean startup to both, but not carte blanche.

Lessons From Scrum

I do have one concern around treating the lean startup as a toolkit in the same way that I have seen many companies attempt to do the same with scrum. The problem with treating scrum like a toolkit is that it is a framework, and missing key aspects of it can cause the whole framework to crumble. For example,

  • You cannot have a totally agile development process, and expect it to adhere to standard project management life-cycles.
  • You cannot have a standard in-project change authorization process, and yet change requirements in an agile way.
  • Standard time and cost budgeting cannot apply to scrum projects.

What I’m trying to say is with a framework you have to commit, and adopt the whole thing – there is no picking and choosing the bits you like the look of – it just does not work. Whereas a toolkit is perfect for picking and choosing the parts that best fit your project.

How To Get It Right

The main problem with leveraging a toolkit is knowing what tool is best for the job, and how to use that tool. There are many parts of the lean startup toolkit, such as:

  • Customer Interviews
  • Minimum Viable Product
  • Validated Learning
  • Cohort Analysis
  • Innovation Accounting

Most of the writing about lean startup techniques focuses on the tech startup world, and whilst startups continue to innovate there is little writing in other environments. In order to leverage these techniques in a variety of situations we need to understand them a little better, and look at what they’re actually doing. We really need to be able to answer 3 fundamental questions with regard to them:

  1. What is this technique supposed to do?
  2. Can this technique be leveraged in my environment / on my project?
  3. How can I leverage this technique in my environment / on my project?

For example, lets say your project is an internal business application, that will not be sold to end customers. Taking an example from the list above:

Customer Interviews

What are customer interviews for?

  • – To identify your customers pain points.
  • – To validate your proposition (by finding out what people will pay, how much etc).
  • – To pre-sell your product

Can customer interviews be used for my project?

In this case the answer is probably no, or very unlikely. Your not selling anything to end customers so by and large customer interviews have little value. You may still need to interview your end users to develop your requirements, but that is a different thing.

However, if you consider your customer to be the business sponsor for the project then customer interviews may certainly still be useful. As your main business sponsor(s) is likely holding the purse strings, and determining whether the project is a success it would be useful to

  • Identify what the pain points are to the business.
  • Validate how big a problem this really is.

How can I conduct customer interviews

You could either be thinking that customer interviews are not worth looking at for internal projects, or that they should be conducted with the main business sponsor(s). In the first case identifying how you would conduct the interviews is pointless, but in the latter case you should be:

  • Identifying who to interview.
  • Scheduling when to interview them.
  • Plan how your interview will flow.
  • Identify your rules, such as ‘no leading questions’

Its important here to identify where conducting interviews for internal project sponsors differs from that of an end customer.

Wrapping Up

The lean startup has innovated a lot of the ways startups approach projects, but I think theres a lot more to it than just typical tech start-ups. Applying techniques such as the customer interviews, cohort analysis and minimum viable products is useful for a variety of different projects, such as:

  • Tech Product Start-ups
  • Service Start-ups
  • Internal business application projects

The key is to identifying what is useful, and how it can be used to make your project more successful.

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