Lean Enterprise – Lean Startup for Grown ups

We have already seen how Eric Ries’ Lean Startup established the language and a culture of predominantly mobile-app start-ups over the past five years. The reality however, is that most of us do not work in start-ups where business models are unknown, and regular pivots are required to find out what works. Instead, most people in the tech field are employed for companies with established and (normally) profitable business models, and business processes tuned to support those business models. These companies are often large, with the momentum and turning circle of a super-tanker. The dissonance between this reality and the aspiration of many people in technology to be working at the bleeding-edge of change and innovation is often a driver of frustration.

Dilbert on Start-ups

Moreover, the chaotic nature of market competition, the rapid change of technologies, and the threat of disruption require that established companies, large and small become more fleet-footed merely to survive. Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky & Barry O’Reilly apply serious management rigour to the task of transforming businesses to become more agile. Building on the Minimum Viable Product approach, they explore options for how to manage the product portfolio, creating different options to provide the basis of growth, and applying the principles of validated learning and experimentation to determine which products are likely to succeed. The Business Model Canvas, so beloved of Agile practitioners also makes an appearance.

Where this book shines is in its credibility to the corporate mindset. The waterfall project methodology is not discarded simply because its unfashionable (a trap agile advocates often fall into). Instead, ways in which the two can be integrated are explored, as is the way Kanban and other agile-style and lean engineering methodologies can be used to optimise the operation. No part of the organisation is left untouched. Organisation culture is explored in depth, including one of my favourite axioms – Make it safe to fail. Easy to say, but rarely the case in most companies I have worked with. However, I was surprised to find that my favourite section related to financial management. In most big companies, the budget cycle provides the drum-beat to which the rest of the company dances, and often this is a slow methodical, 12-monthly beat, completely at odds with the pace of change in the outside world. Here the authors champion an approach called Beyond Budgeting which aims to free business decision-making from the straitjacket of the cyclical budgetary process.

I have been through quite a few management, strategy and tech books recently, and in terms of depth, rigour and scope, this is certainly at the top of my pile, and is my daily companion in my work travels. Essential reading.

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