Agile Life: Applying The Lean Startup Methodology To Your Life And Business

Take a moment to think about the most successful decisions you’ve made recently. They can be personal or professional. Did you make your decisions based on assumptions? Did you try to validate those assumptions? If an assumption was proven wrong, did you change your decision? Or did you proceed regardless?

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that basing decisions on mere assumptions doesn’t build a foundation for success. That’s why it’s crucial to test your assumptions, validating what you think you know and having the courage to pivot when assumptions are proven incorrect. This way of thinking – echoed both by agile development and Eric Ries’ “lean startup” methodology – has had a massive impact not only on the way I run my business but also on the way I conduct my personal life. It recently occurred to me that I’m not only running an agile business; I’m living an agile life.

To give you some background, I’m a passionate advocate of Ries’ lean startup way of thinking. His ideas and practices are informed by the principles of agile

For me, the hiring process is an opportunity that invites an agile approach. In many hiring situations, I prefer to test people out, engaging them first on a contract basis. If things work out for both parties, the next iteration is hiring them full time.

Similarly, when it was time to hire our first sales development team members, we started out by hiring the smallest possible team of only three professionals. This was another test, as we needed to first understand what the team’s return on investment (how many new leads/touch points generated per person) would look like. From this first small iteration, we gauged the team’s effectiveness, learned where our processes did and didn’t work, and used our learnings to adapt our processes and scale our team. Truly, when you need to do something big, it’s always best to start small.

We strive to establish the “agile way of life” across our entire organization, abiding by working protocols that encourage continual feedback and iteration. This fits with the number one value from the Agile Manifesto: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” It’s also predicated on the idea that our assumptions about how our company or projects should be run must be tested, validated and iterated at every opportunity. For example:

* We empower all levels to support direct feedback from every part of the organization. We didn’t adopt a tradition-bound or hierarchical department structure. Instead, borders between levels are almost nonexistent. Anyone can propose an idea and be in charge of its implementation, and anyone can openly share an opinion on any matter. Anyone can make a request or provide feedback. As a result, everyone in the company is a leader capable of influencing the wider team. That way, we’re continually measuring, learning and iterating via the ideas and efforts of all our people.

* Our weekly Scrum of Scrums helps us gather feedback and decide how to iterate. Inspired by agile’s Scrum of Scrums idea – a process that helps large organizations scale up the scrum concept – every week we bring together departmental leads to serve as their groups’ “ambassadors.” This helps us promote cross-departmental communication and work together to address any issues related to poor communication, lack of resources or weak processes. To begin each meeting, leads report on how any decisions determined by the previous meeting have worked out – an agile retrospective in which we reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what that means for our path forward.

* Our project management office (PMO) team shares responsibility for project delivery across the portfolio. Although a specific manager is assigned to each project, our PMO team works together to ensure delivery of all projects. We decide assignments as a team. We rely on each other, readily asking for support or coverage. We meet regularly to ask for advice and share experiences and ideas. We are fundamentally open to change and continually focused on improving our approach, using our backlog and task board to help us improve our processes and identify and implement best practices.

We also embrace agile in a day-to-day sense, because it can be effective in even the most mundane situations. For example, we recently needed to upgrade our beautiful but already outdated Apple Thunderbolt displays for our entire Santa Monica office. Instead of jumping right in and buying dozens of new LG 5K displays (which aren’t cheap), I started out by buying only one – for myself. I would undertake the user testing required to decide the next iteration. When the monitor arrived, I liked it, but I learned we’d need to replace all our USB-A cables with USB-C cables. I had to wait two days till mine arrived in the mail. I implemented what I’d learned in my next Amazon order, ordering the displays and cables for the entire office all at once.

It’s funny to think that I owe so much of my success in both work and life to agile thinking and the lean startup methodology, but as my testing has shown, iteration by iteration, it’s exactly what’s keeping me on the right track.


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