Three Breaths

Musings on code, management, and life

Agile and the Lean Startup

Posted at — Aug 25, 2010

I was at a Windows Phone 7 Firestarter at Microsoft in Waltham and ran into The Hacker Chick.  We had just started a conversation about the Lean Startup and Agile when we were interrupted by someone who asked Abby “Excuse me, do you work for Microsoft?  Do you have any tape?”  I managed to bite my tongue and not say the obvious “It’s a hardware problem”.  Needless to say, the conversation got cut short while Abby ran off in search of tape.  I had no idea the life of a Developer Evangelist could be so demanding.  Who ever said Microsoft is not responsive to the needs of the marketplace?

So we never got to finish the discussion, but I have some thoughts about it.  There are certainly many similarities between Agile and the Lean Startup movement.  In fact, the use of Agile methodologies are one of the key components of a Lean Startup.  I see the Lean Startup as an evolution of Agile practices.

Both Lean and Agile involve the customer and welcome customer feedback.  Both are designed to get working products out into the customers hands as soon as possible to be able to incorporate customer feedback into next iterations of the product.  One way that I think Lean goes beyond Agile is that a key component of its practices is customer development.  Most of the Agile projects I have worked on already had a customer in place ,or at least a proxy for the customer in the form of an in-house product owner.  Customer development is critical in learning about the problem you are trying to solve with your start-up.   These slides describe how customer development combined with Agile practices can be used to address issues where neither the problem nor its solution are fully known.

Another concept that I think is key to the idea of the Lean Startup (or at least successful startups) is the pivot.  The idea behind a pivot is that there is a vision behind the product (there is a vision, right?).  As start-ups continue to develop the customer and get more feedback there will most likely come a time where what you are learning isn’t in line with that initial vision.  Start-ups that are unable or unwilling to deviate from that initial vision are most likely doomed for failure.  Companies that can incorporate that feedback and change the vision have a chance to succeed.   Eric Ries describes the pivot as

Keeping one foot in the past is critical, otherwise you make drastic jumps from one vision to the next, and risk losing what you have already learned about the customer.  There are a lot of interesting examples of several successful pivots by companies like Flickr, Paypal, and YouTube.

To sum up, I think that Agile helps us build software right whereas the principles of the Lean Startup try to make sure that we are also building the right software.

P.S. To learn more about the Lean Startup, take a look at some of the presentations from this year’s Startup Lessons Learned Conference or see if you can find a local Lean Startup meetup in your areas.

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