August Book Club Memo: The Lean Startup

August Book Club Memo: The Lean Startup

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Maxwell Ryan
Aug 1, 2016
(Image credit: The Lean Startup)

Happy August Everyone,

By now you should all have received your copy of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries with a letter from me (if you haven't, please let me and Molly know right away and we'll find out where it went). Sending you all this book represents a small experiment on my own to see how well I can push new ideas down through our ranks and strengthen our work together. In keeping with the book's ideas, I'm starting small and am going to try and measure a few activities related to reading the book that should inform its success or failure.

We are now past the early startup years and into a second decade that is all about building a successful business organization with a strong culture around WHY we do what we do and HOW we do it. Given my background in teaching and my significantly lesser experience in running a medium sized digital media company, I am extremely interested in growing and learning the right way to do things and to do this as a company in a way that suits us. This is also one of the most exciting opportunities I can imagine, and what gets me up in the morning these days. While I don't always know what the answer to a question is by myself, I can tell when a group discussion is headed in the wrong direction, or when it is creeping up on a beautiful, expansive solution. Those are priceless moments.

In keeping with Turn The Ship Around by David Marquet, my goal since last summer is not to run our ship from the top down, but to have it run by leaders from bottom to top, with each team, squad and department taking advantage of opportunities, solving problems and directing their work independently while clearly fixed on all of the company's' shared goals. A good example of this dynamic is the contrast between anyone coming to their manager and saying, "This is what I intend to do and why I intend to do it." and "Please, tell me what to do."

I believe we've made really good headway in this, and I'll continue to weave in these lessons, but now is the time for some real practical guidance on how to structure our work and The Lean Startup does it beautifully.

First Phase: Startup

"Entrepreneurs have been trying to fit the square peg of their unique problems into the round hole of general management for decades. As a result, many entrepreneurs take a "just do it" attitude, avoiding all forms of management, process, and discipline."

As I read these words I could easily see myself over the past ten years. All bloggers started this way, but over time we've organically grown to have much more respect for process and discipline. Nevertheless, there is an impulse, and I've certainly always had it, to try things, throw them against the wall and see how they work. Ries points out that 1/2 of this impulse is very good, the energy and creativity around trying things, but 1/2 is not, because without a process for measuring the success of what you try, you risk trying things, not truly learning and ending up nowhere. Sure, you can get lucky and steer with powerful intuition in the early days, but as you grow and things get more complex, this type of management by intuition becomes increasingly limited and fails to build a strong team that can take over the reigns.

Second Phase: Old Management

When chaos ensues and the charismatic founder begins to fail, companies then often fall back on old management tactics. Additionally, as companies grow bigger and mature they begin to integrate old management tactics into their once startup body. While essentially healthy and good, Ries argues that old management practices do not work in a business environment that is highly unpredictable, risky and fast paced such as ours.

"...a good plan, a solid strategy, and thorough market research. In earlier eras, these things were indicators of likely success. The overwhelming temptation is to apply them to startups too, but this doesn't work, because startups operate with too much uncertainty... The old management methods are not up to the task. Planning and forecasting are only accurate when based on a long, stable operating history and a relatively static environment. Startups have neither."

We have, as a company, become more cautious in the past five years. We have become more mature as well, and put in place new processes and standards which have helped to grow the business, particularly as we've taken on many more people and increased the volume of work we do. My fear, however, is that we have lost some of our elasticity, boldness and quickness to innovate, change, improve and otherwise try new things, while our readers have been steadily changing. If we don't continue to innovate our readers will migrate away.

So how do you balance the two? How do you continue to innovate in a non-chaotic way?

Third Phase: Lean Startup

While AT Media is not a baby company with four employees in a cramped room on Crosby Street anymore, we are still very much in need of maintaining our startup culture in a mature and successful way. This is where The Lean Startup comes in. I will not spoil the book for you other than to say that Ries outlines five principles in his introduction and then digs into them deeply with examples throughout.

The basic takeaway, however, and what I want us all to adopt, is that we need to try things quickly, take risks with new ideas and then measure very closely the results. In the first part is entrepreneurial energy and creativity, while the second part is the process and discipline of an organization that learns from everything it does, builds on success with the readers and pivots away from failures.

This is not as easy as it sounds, and it won't happen overnight as we don't have a strong culture of measurement and analysis yet nor do we have all the tools we need yet. That will all come over the next six months. In the meantime, however, we can begin to shift our thinking and use what we've got to work, create and meet differently.

August Book Club

On that note I want to invite you all to join me and all the department heads, as we read through this book together over the next four weeks. The Lean Startup is a quick and compelling read, and the lessons within it apply to every aspect of our work in every department, from Product to Operations.

Feel free to dive in and binge read the book tonight or wait til the last minute, but if you'd like a suggested timeline, here you go. The goal is to finish the book this month.

Week1, August 8: Part One VISION

Week 2, August 15: Part Two STEER

Week 3, August 22: Part Three ACCELERATE

Week 4, August 29: Part Three & Epilogue.

This puts us as a company to completely be acquainted with these new ideas by the Labor Day weekend, and I'm excited and fascinated to see how such a concerted effort will affect our work together.

In addition, I'm going to schedule an open lunch and learn each week which anyone can join to talk about the book, ask questions and share ideas.

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