Top 7 Lessons Product Managers Can Learn From Lean Startup Machine

A few weekends ago, I participated in the Lean Startup Machine workshop held in Washington DC. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how Lean Startup principles can be utilized to drive product innovation and if they can help product management become more efficient in driving product development and delivery. The Lean Startup Machine (LSM) workshop offered an opportunity to gain hands-on learning in applying Lean Startup techniques. The workshop proved to be an unforgettable experience.

Here are the top lessons I learned from the workshop and how they’re applicable to product management.

1. “Lean Startup is about running the simplest experiment to validate a business assumption.” – @SargeSalman. As I’m learning myself, there are many misconceptions about Lean Startup. Chief among them is that lean means cheap. It does not. Lean means not being wasteful. And the way it’s applied to business problems is by challenging you to think critically about the assumptions underlying your business or product idea, and then to systematically and rigorously test them to prove them true or false.

build-measure-learnLean Startup challenges the traditional business practice of using product releases as the as the metric of execution by espousing learning as the metric of progress through the use of validation/invalidation of one’s assumptions through testable hypotheses. As a product manager, this makes sense to me as one of the things I should be doing is thinking critically and analytically about my product solution.

2. Go talk to your customers. Constantly. Lean Startup starts with Customer Development, a method Steven Blank introduces in his book The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Customer Development asks entrepreneurs to “get out the building”, which is another way of saying, “go talk to your customers.” This exactly what product management should be doing.

As such, this should come intuitively to product management, because product managers should always be focused on the customer. What the Lean Startup movement has done, though, is provided a methodical way to think about and approach how to conduct customer research. At the LSM workshop, we were forced to continually go find and talk to customers. LSM goes beyond theory by providing its participants with a tool called the Validation Board to capture one’s assumptions, create experiments, document learnings, and make the next pivot.

3. Traditional product development is wasteful. On the surface, this systematic way of hypothesizing, experimenting and learning can seem slow, because it’s not visibly tangible. Whereas a requirements document is. And code is. So both business management and even product management get trigger happy to start getting some code written, as its a way of showing demonstrable progress and makes us feel good that the product is getting developed. After all, the sooner the product is out there, the sooner we can make money!

Unfortunately, this traditional approach gives us a false sense of progress. The LSM workshop was a valuable reminder that if you don’t spend time upfront understanding your customers and their needs, you will build products no one wants. I learned this the hard way from first hand experience when I built a first-of-its-kind web product that cost a lot of money and took 6 months to launch only to achieve a miserable 2% registration rate two years after its initial launch. Ouch.

4. You must have a strong team. Now, granted, product managers can’t always choose their team members. Yet, what LSM got me to think is how many product managers think critically about the kinds of team members they’d like and then actually ask for them? And even in the case where one cannot choose their team members, as the leader of that team, how many actually spend time cultivating team unity?

5. Leadership is always, always required. This falls from the above point. The LSM workshop groups participants into teams and each team pursues an idea that received the most votes from the participants themselves. My experience reinforced the need for strong leadership by the team lead. This not only means building strong team unity of purpose, but also being able to effectively arbitrate discussions and be decisive. Exactly what a product manager is supposed to do.

6. LSM will test your influencing skills. Leadership is about influence. Product managers need to be strong influencers and negotiators. At the LSM workshop, you are working with people you’ve never met before on a team, and under a stringent timeline all of you need to come together as a team and demonstrate progress. I found my influencing skills were strenuously tested during the workshop, and it was wonderful.

7. Your solution, while interesting, is irrelevant. Sounds familiar, right? A riff on the traditional product management mantra of “your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant”, though this takes it to the next level and targets the proposed solution itself.

Customers don't care about your product

Entrepreneurs love their ideas. They love their solutions. And so do product managers. While I’m not saying entrepreneurship and product management are the same, like entrepreneurs, product managers are natural problem solvers and we’re passionate about our solutions. Heck, I get passionate about my product ideas all the time! But the sobering truth is that it’s infinitely more important to first be crystal clear on who is your customer and what is their problem. Because the customer does not care about your product.

The LSM workshop forces you to think about the customer and their problem first. During the workshop, I saw first hand how many people struggled with staying out of the solution zone, including, I must admit, myself. By validating your customer and problem hypotheses, you’ll be in a better position to provide a real solution that solves actual customer problems.

I would definitely encourage you to attend a Lean Startup Machine workshop near you. I’ve written a recap of the one I attended on my blog and explain why I recommend product managers should attend LSM.

Have you attended an LSM workshop? What was your experience like? Have you tried applying Lean Startup principles in your work? Please share!