In this post, I will be exploring practical methodologies and tools coming from the startup world that can help all of us be more productive at work and successfully manage projects of all sorts. These methods include both strategic “general” concepts and practical exercises you can use for any product, process or project management. It is my take on the startup know-how relevant for everyone and it is by no means a complete list.
PART 2: Startup methodologies and tools.
Before I dive into a few useful methods we should all know, I’d like to share some thoughts about why it is useful for any type of job to tap into these tools in the first place.
First of all, startup is a small, highly constrained organization that has succeeded in making do with the resources they have while trying to change the world and invent tech that does not exist. If they can do that, any other organization can and should learn from their experience and methods.
Also, startups use simplified methodologies and tools that have been improved over time to find the “short cuts” and succeed. These approaches have worked well for many early-stage, high-risk companies, so they should also work well for more traditional businesses.
Finally, every type of organization, including a startup or an NGO, undergoes the same process to create value (regardless of vertical, type or mission). To simplify, I would describe this process like this:
- Find the real need (=problem, challenge etc.) and validate it
- Create the right solution for this need and validate it
- Achieve sustainability in order to bring your solution to your target audience – that means budget, human resources, distribution channels etc.
- Learn from the process and improve over time.
Regardless of the type of the organization, startup tools can be very helpful when going through these different stages and refining your concepts and their implementation.
Approach Is Everything
The way we approach our work influences our reality. If we decide to focus on implementing the solution that we have developed on our own, we will get exactly that. Solutions that we could think of in the safety of our room, without getting out of the office and interacting with the world, may be fantastic, but they will never be the best we can do. On the other hand, if we decide to explore the problem space, we will expand our own understanding of what the perfect solution should be. This could be done by understanding who our target audience is and approaching it to conduct the relevant “research”. This is the case not only for new products, but any type of process or project. If we fall in love with the problem, our eventual solution will bring more target audience-focused results.
There is a great short video of Y Combinator’s Michael Seibel that discusses the ways to get and test startup ideas. This is a great video for anyone starting a new project, regardless of their line of work. You can see it HERE.
Once you have researched the problem well and you are an expert in your domain, you can use Google’s “design sprint” methodology to discover the solution. By creating focused, limited in time but very intensive “sprints”, you explore your further assumptions about your target audience and the relevant solutions and validate them with the actual market. Depending on the type of a project you are developing, the sprint can take anywhere from one day to five days, but it should not last more than that. If you have discovered many time-consuming assumptions that should be checked, give yourself some homework and repeat the sprint after two weeks.
Google’s sprint methodology provides us with many specific exercises designed to take us through the “product design process” – these are highly effective tools that should preferably be utilized in a group during brainstorming. You can see this concise sprint methodology booklet used by Google HERE.
Business Model Canvas is a simple way to put all your thoughts regarding a product and its Go-To-Market in order to see whether it is viable and makes sense. Once you have gone through the sprint, you can take a similar approach to get a bird’s-eye view of your project. There are many tutorials on how to design your business model canvas online. I like this video by Strategyzer that describes the tool quickly and effectively HERE.
Built to Last
Having spent a lot of time understanding the concept, it should be fairly straightforward to develop the actual product, process or project to solve the specific need. But it usually is still not that simple. There are some startup tools that can make it easier to build your solution with the minimum waste of time, effort and money while maximizing on impact.
Great way to start may be the “pretotyping”, which is a set of methods, tools and tactics designed to “help entrepreneurs fail fast” and then recover quickly to create the RIGHT product. The approach was constructed by Alberto Savoia who has put it in a great short booklet you can find HERE.
The useful methodology to have in mind when building your product or project is the Minimum Viable Project (MVP) approach. As many of you may well know, MVP is a method that suggests that you should start by creating the minimal working solution for your need, with as little embellishments and complementary features as possible. Focus on the core idea before you go into other aspects of the project. MVP approach allows us to concentrate on the most important aspects of the solution and let our target audience use it to give us feedback first, before we get to building the other aspects of our solution.
The MVP requires a certain amount of discipline in order to make it work. Agile project management techniques can be very useful to achieve such discipline and the right pace, especially when working as a team. Agile management is the opposite of the so-called waterfall approach, where a team is working on one aspect of the project after another, without looking back, validating, learning and incorporating feedback into further work. In the agile method, the idea is to work in definite cycles of time (usually two weeks) on accomplishing very specific milestones, followed by the validation and a feedback session to make sure no relevant piece of information is missed. Agile method is complex and is far from perfect, but some of its concepts can be extremely beneficial for teams. My favorite source of agile-related know-how is the Workfront guide that can be found HERE.
The Cycle of Learning
At the end of the day, the solution is never finished, no process is ever perfect and any project can always be improved. Startups know that, therefore they never finish the cycle of building, measuring their work, learning and then incorporating these learnings into the next cycle of work. This Lean Startup approach focuses specifically on doing and experimenting and not elaborate, time-consuming perfecting every element of the solution.
Flexibility in designing a new project, creating a great process or finding a wonderful solution to a problem is what makes startups so adaptable and attuned to their markets and audiences. There is no reason why we all should not be similarly flexible.
Startup founders are very adept in mastering shortcuts and creating simple yet effective tools and tactics that make them achieve a better approach faster. I hope this list is helpful for anyone who wants to improve or adjust their own project or product management methodologies.
In the last blogpost of this short series, I will be describing some useful tricks and approaches to manage small teams. In the startup context, team work is crucial to its success. Often, there is too much to do and the team is too small, yet these highly-motivated teams often achieve the (almost) impossible. Why are they so motivated and how can we motivate and design teams in any context to make them work better? I will try to answer these and other questions related to employee management next month.
Design Sprints: https://designsprintkit.withgoogle.com/methodology/overview
Agile Project Management: https://www.workfront.com/project-management/methodologies/agile
Business Model Canvas:
How to Get and Test Startup (and any other) Ideas: