Applying the Lean Startup Principles to Digital Projects

Today’s management of complex digital project is often driven by SCRUM/Agile methodologies. It stands as a very good way to handle iterative development and client validation. However, the collaboration between parties and the commitment of experts may vary according to organizations, persons -or deliverables. We are investigating ways to turn each of the projects we run into genuine, connected, entrepreneurship projects. Why? Just because it drives the required energy to reach an upper level of quality.

Everyone who’s interested in technology and startups know about the Lean Startup, the best-seller, award-winning book from Eric Ries. The initiative is a set of principles, methodologies and tools to consider a startup building with common sense: iterative process, customer validation, vision testing and improvement, continuous learning, MVP, etc. More than a toolbox, it’s a mindset. When smartly distilled into the entrepreneur’s mind, his actions, initiatives and products may be more likely to reach a success through small steps and sequential progress – rather than through a big-bang start from fixed-in-stone requirements.

The Lean Startup applied to Digital Projects

Iteration is already at the heart of most digital agencies like K Company. What is sometimes still missing is a particular mindset when starting a project: the agency’s team must make it his own, embrace the full range of responsibilities, that actually goes far beyond the technical product delivered at the end of the project plan. What makes a technology project a success is the combination of multiple components, and most of them are not technical (code, design, analysis): they are peripheral concerns mostly taken over by the client’s organization. That’s a mistake. If the agency gets a full accountability for the final product, its quality would be far better ensured. To reach that point, both client and supplier must adapt, see beyond the traditional sell-buy relationship, and consider themselves as equally committed to the project’s successful conclusion.

Let’s see how some of the Lean Startup principles could be applied to digital project management.

All is a question of ideas, and Ideas are the raw material of Risk.

The Lean Startup is designed to help creating startups under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Well, most of digital projects we run lie in uncertainty as well: for the client organization that invests in a diversification program, in e-commerce, in online tools to optimize its business. Each new piece of software is a risk: will it fit into the structure, will he be adopted – will it simply work? Will it be performant towards competition’s? Is it wisely put-to-market?

Even though technology, analysis and content are more and more controlled by both parties, there is still a huge room for risk, and this is… the universe around you. Competition exists. External forces are at play. Controlled expertise reduces risk. But no one can fully control the future adoption rates, the receptiveness, the market fit. We can approach hypothesis, no more. We must guess, and guide the path.

If technology and methodology may reduce risk, current processes are too operational, short-term driven. Stakeholders communicate badly. Collaboration is globally weak. Knowledge is scattered between people. Silos are growing, and there is no common practice. All these things increase risk.

Entrepreneurship mindset

Everybody in the company has ideas. In the agency, and in the client organization. Our people must be recognized as thinking entities with creative ideas, and must be enticed to throw them into the project. Our consultants must work as entrepreneurs, so as the project team at the client’s side. Of course the client must accept his project be challenged, augmented, modified, enhanced – for its quality’s sake! This can’t work with heavy requirements documents. The “cahier des charges” must be the spine of an augmentation process in which all actors are involved, as individuals committed and interested in the final success.

Establishing this culture is a long run and a never-ending challenge. But it worth it. Entrepreneurs think differently, have the ultimate goal in mind, prioritize things better, have a no-nonsense approach, and have a management thinking. No routine allowed, here.

New entrepreneurship-driven management

Entrepreneurs are accountable for their ideas and actions. Management professionals may not be the most appropriate staffing when it comes to complex digital projects. Gearing in the fog and uncertainty requires abilities that lies in every successful entrepreneur, for sure – and not always in successful managers. This is the reason why there is growth saturation for good digital agencies: when they become too big, managers replace entrepreneurs, and that’s often a catastrophe for the quality level.

Validated learning

“Using the Lean Startup approach, companies can create order not chaos, by providing tools to test a vision continuously.” Today’s reflex in progressing through a plan is “Just do it”. Just roll out the plan. Let’s face it: we often think like that, because we were conditioned by centuries of rationality and waterfall-thinking. On the other hand, everybody claims the importance of validation of any decision. All right. Let’s do that! How many times haven’t we face a dissatisfied client with his brand new digital Rolls because its inherent performance was weak? The natural and easy reaction is to finger-point the agency, even if she has just unrolled the prior-fixed requirements coming from… the client. Not the best way to up-sell, right? Besides, the natural reflex of agencies is to go straightforward to the final result, the fastest way possible (even more if it’s fixed-priced), to ensure margins. The result is a maybe profitable project, and a less profitable long-term relationship between parties.

The Lean Startup learnings teach that one should try, learn from users, customers, and adapt in the first stages. In 2013, how is it still possible to engage in an expensive, long-run development without knowing if the decisions/ideas are the right ones? Ideas from consulting bureaus or marketing panels don’t give a dime of answer. Test drives in real conditions do. We must test hypothesis. Pilots and MVPs have never been so necessary. Every technology project should inject a dose of R&D in its core, in an iterative sequence; it would be called R&D&D : research and development and research.

Innovation accounting

Traditional project management methodologies collect progress data through timesheets and Gantt charts. Are we on track? Are we on budget? Are we financially green or red? What are the overrun sources? That’s a great way to manage the economics of a project, from a spreadsheet-management perspective. Yet a new kind of accounting can be applied to technology project, just like to lean startups. It is made of measurable checkpoints and can be named “Project Analytics” (not the one from Oracle), that are much more than financial- or time-based KPIs. The Lean Startup calls it “actionable metrics” (as opposed to “vanity metrics” tending to satisfy the stakeholders’ ego, interest or concerns). New kind of project analytics can be the level of adequacy between feature and users, the progress path to a long-term view strategy (not only absolute figures), the involvement level of power users through times, etc.

Build-Measure-Learn cycle

Fundamental component of the Lean Startup initiative, the development shorter cycle build-measure-learn implies starting with the production release of a reduced scope. Most clients don’t dare to do that yet: they want a finished, complete product through a one-time launch, and a subsequent maintenance supported by budget queues. The word “maintenance” is in itself a clue of the bias here: build the highest wall possible, put it on the market, and try to maintain his heights with low budgets. What if we spent the money by building a first cheap layer, gather feedback, learn from the first uses, then improve or strengthen that layer before building the second one – and so on? At the end, we would have reduced the test session drastically, ensure the feature-user fit, and we would talk about continuous “improvements” rather than mandatory “maintenance”.
Of course, it’s simpler written than done. Reality checks may lead us hit a wall. Transforming a culture from thick to lean mindset can only be done step by step. It starts with teams in agencies and client’s evangelization. The journey will be long and hard, but the results will be amazing. At K Company, we have decided to take that path, and we’re working on applying some of those principles in a two-fold initiative called “Digital Engagement Canvas”, coming this summer (launched in September).


Initially written for the K Live, the K Company’s blog.

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