The Eric Ries effect: how lean principles have inspired Zone's approach

With Eric Ries coming to Zone on 16 November to speak about his international best-seller the Lean Startup and new book The Startup Way, we speak to project director Toby Dykes about Ries's influence on Zone's methods...

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1. Hello Toby (pictured below). Being a project director at Zone, you must have drunk a lot from Eric’s well (if, er, you know what I mean). When were you first aware of Eric’s work?

Ha. Yep, about six years ago I worked on an innovation programme at my last agency which was solely based on the Lean Startup model. It’s underpinned pretty much everything since.

Toby Dykes

2. What was so inspiring about it?

Well, the thing I like most is the humility required to work this way. It grounds everyone. It’s less about coming up with a supposedly groundbreaking idea – and stumping up as much cash as possible to make it happen (not to mention dragging everyone along for the ride!). It’s much more about thinking: "I reckon this is a great idea: what’s the least we can do to verify if I’m on to something?"

Being brutally honest, this doesn’t always come naturally with agency culture. Agencies can be very good at coming up with and selling potentially groundbreaking ideas, but historically have been not as good at aligning these ideas with process. Particularly a process that enforces the validation of assumptions and thinking. Maybe the humility aspect could have used some work too ; )

3. Why are Eric’s principles so relevant to how a digital business like Zone approaches client projects?

They often represent the most efficient way to spend our client’s money. But they also represent a challenge for us.

Lean Startup encourages us to measure progress not against widgets, story points or progress towards a predefined solution, but by how much we learn. Massive difference. 

Traditional commercial agency models are usually based on a single cost rooted in scope. This encourages a charge full steam ahead. But it discourages us from pivoting as we learn more about our product and users. And that is definitely not the Lean Startup way!

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4. How do the agile delivery method and Ries’s lean principles complement each other?

They are peas in a pod, basically. Once you establish your concept is worth automating, agile values and principles are crucial in allowing you to continue to iteratively build, measure and learn, by treating everything in your backlog as a test – based on a hypothesis.

5. Makes you wonder what on earth people did before this. What did they do again?!

Ha! Well, they presumed a solution, spent all their money delivering it – or partially delivering it. It then either failed very late in the day, or they got very, very lucky.

Funnily enough, we tend to hear more about the latter, not so much about the former, even though there are far more of them. That’s not to say it’s easy to adopt the discipline required for Lean Startup.

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6. Do you have an example from a specific project?

Yes, actually. We were looking to embed a service within GP practices. We developed a fairly basic app as part of the process but it was only when we finally got our service into the practices that we immediately started getting feedback on our service design.

If we had faked the app, or simply used a paper prototype, we would have learned so much earlier and been able to adapt the service accordingly. By then it was too late.

On a subsequent project our hypothesis was based around a basic website presenting specific information. As an agency, our natural inclination was to create a robust solution built upon a CMS. But, on reflection, we realised we only needed a site for long enough to validate our hypothesis, so opted to hard-code the site.

By doing so we put ourselves in a position where we were able to learn earlier and also were more prepared to accept a negative result, as we had invested less time and money in the solution. Fortunately the results were an unmitigated success and we could build the site with confidence, based on this validated learning.

The Lean Startup: the facts

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7. Why do you think Eric’s principles have had such a tangible effect – more so than a lot of business philosophers?

There are probably a lot of reasons, but the ones that really interest me are the mitigation of risk and the elimination of waste.

These are also outcomes of adopting agile values and principles, but are often strangely overlooked. Getting stuff in front of our target audience earlier allows us to learn more quickly (including learning whether we’re on to something or not) and discourages us from assuming we know what our customers want (thereby delivering a load of features that we find out late in the day are of low value). Which of course brings us back to that humility thing again...

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8. Eric’s new book is called The Startup Way. It’s about “how entrepreneurial management can transform culture and drive long-term growth”. The word “entrepreneurial” is used in a lot of contexts. What does it mean for you in Zone life?

Barriers to market entry are now so low that opportunities to disrupt and be disrupted are everywhere. This represents an enormous threat to established organisations. So, to me, entrepreneurial management is often about how Zone can help clients organise to enable a state of continuous innovation and transformation.
 
Done correctly, this not only mitigates these threatening conditions, but also turns them into an opportunity.

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9. It feels like Ries's methods offer confident direction in an era where we hear a lot about 'uncertainty'. It's often tricky for businesses (and, well, all of us) to 'accept uncertainty'. How have you seen this successfully approached?

Well, it’s a frequent frustration that, at the start of projects, there’s an expectation that the world will stop turning and nothing will change until we’re all finished. And even during projects – which inevitably experience periods of uncertainty – there is often a mindset that once we get out of these choppy waters, everything will then become calm again.

If my 20 years' experience has taught me anything, it’s that things will always change. And now, that ‘change’ occurs far more frequently. It’s actually extremely liberating to acknowledge at the start of a project that things WILL change. Whether it’s our marketplace, our faith in our assumptions or our value proposition.
 
So let’s agree up front to not only focus on delivering value early – because we can be more certain of the short term – but also to set up our processes, tools and architectures to allow us to react or pivot to new knowledge or a change of circumstance.

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10. What sort of issues have you seen big organisations face when adopting the kind of entrepreneurial methods outlined in The Startup Way? And, frankly, how do organisations with layers and layers of management and departmental complexity realistically adapt?

The very rhythm of a traditional business makes it difficult for them to adopt a more entrepreneurial mindset. The idea that, at the start of a financial year, the organisation should be able to predict what they need to achieve and what they can achieve and how much it’s going to cost, is not only unrealistic, but also encourages a very myopic outlook that ignores new information and changes of circumstance.

It’s definitely tough for larger, well-established organisations. Startups don’t have the kind of ‘brick walls’ you can encounter there. Larger, older organisations are also often massively skeptical about getting products in front of customers without enough polish.
 
As a result, we are often asked to deliver an output (widget X, a website that looks like this, etc). A more effective way for larger organisations to start to adopt these principles is to get multi-disciplinary teams to work collectively against outcomes (increased conversion, decreased costs, etc). Then, continually check their progress with real users to establish the extent to which they are meeting the project’s objectives.

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11. One final question... with Eric coming in on Thursday, is there a question you would love to pose to him?

Yes, there is! "You popularised the term MVP which, used correctly, can be an incredibly powerful concept. But MVP is often mistakenly used in the context of optimising for speed-to-market rather than optimising for learning. So, given the extent to which it’s been misunderstood, misused and abused, are you reluctant to still encourage use of the term?"

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