Ignoring Reality Whilst Using Lean Startup: Four Scenes You Will Recognize

Fear, Uncertainty, Attachment and Mindfulness

(notes partly inspired by a talk by Dan Millstein at the Lean Startup Conference 2014, and thoughts on mindfulness and the Lean Startup).

It is in our nature to be fearful of uncertainty and loss (of status, money, plans). It is in our nature to be attached to things we have created, even if they are only ideas and prototypes.

The Lean Startup provides us with techniques to test our assumptions against reality at an early stage, when our attachment to them is relatively young and before we have invested time, energy and money into realizing them.

Since we are so fearful of loss, the longer we allow an idea to develop without being challenged, the more difficult it becomes to face up to testing them — the potential loss has grown massively with the investments we have made.

This is the central failing of countless doomed projects: having proceeded without testing the core assumptions, there is now too much invested to take the risk of facing reality in the present. If we look, it might all be lost! So there is only work, moving forward to ultimate failure.

Confronting reality is much more of an emotional challenge than a rational one. We hate loss, and we hate uncertainty, and our reactions to fear come from our emotional mind, not our rational one. Our emotions overwhelm our ability think clearly.

The practice of mindfulness is a tool which lets us detach, even a little, from our fears. It allows us to see fear and uncertainty without becoming overwhelmed by them. It gives our rational mind space to work.

These are some places where a practice of mindfulness may help you and your team, work with reality to build something that fits, that works, that meshes with the world as it is.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Frank Herbert, Dune. (yeah, I know. but it’s helped me over the years).

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Change is Hard.  Five Steps to Make Change Happen.

Being able to cause a group of people to affect change is a critical quality of a leader.  In fact, we could argue, it’s the essential quality of a leader.

Human beings generally resist change.  In a way it’s completely rationaly: change will make us work to adapt to new patterns of behavior.  We will have to pay attention, learn new skills and approaches, and practice the new environment.   And our lives may get worse!   We don’t know for sure, but we do know that people tend towards “bad” interpretations of events and themselves much more than “good” ones.

From our perspective, it is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good. We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes. (p. 325)

  — See links above.

So how do we start to cause a group of people to affect change?   We will go into each of these in more depth this week.


1.  Show the Need for Change, don’t Explain It.

Resistance is change is often more emotional than rational.  You may explain carefully to your team that, for example, “the product is too slow”, or “we are losing our customers’ confidence” or “the competition is getting more intense”.   You may even show numbers – in fact, if your team is an engineering team, you must show numbers.

None of your rational explanation will have the force of a customer visit with the customer saying “I’m thinking of dropping your product”.   Or a user testing video of a customer trying to use your grindingly slow product.

These experiences are visceral.  They will give emotional reasons to begin the change.


2.  Be Audacious, Be Specific

Saying “we really need to make the product faster” is unlikely to move a team to action.

Saying “we will make the product 10x faster in a quarter, and we will start by making it 2x faster this week” will get things moving.


3.  Show the first crack in the dam.

You don’t need to show that the entire change can happen – you only need to show that it can start.

After saying “we will make the product 2x faster this week”, show that a small change will make it 20% faster immediately.


4.  Tell the Story

A story is: “a person or people want something; there is a challenge; when they overcome it, there is a destination”

Simple!   But tell it.    “We will make the product 10x faster because that’s a good thing” is true, but it’s not a story.

“We are a creative group of killer engineers, and we will overcome the old codebase and the system limitations to massively change the trajectory of this product”.  That’s a story.

How to Make Change Happen 4: Find the Change Points

“Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions.  Instead, the are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions…”.   Switch.  Chip and Dan Heath.


5.  Talk it Up, Show the Change

As we’ve already noted, the “bad” gets more weight than the good, possibly for deeply rooted evolutionary reasons.

Talk it up.   At every small positive change, send an email, have a celebration, make a noise. 

We will post on each of these five steps in the next few days.  Stay tuned.


Unsticking Your Team – the First Step

The key to starting something new is to find the first step.  We get wrapped up in long-term planning, in resourcing, in making sure we have the organization, the tools, but until we see, clearly, the first step we have to take, we’re just preparing, we’re not doing.

If your team is stuck – they know where they have to go, but are not moving – do they have the first step clearly defined?  As a leader, can you help them, empower them to define it?

It may be that there is fear around finding the first step – after all, once it’s known, there is not much in the way of moving into change.  Teams are even more resistant to change than individuals.   Your service to the team as a leader is to help them overcome that resistance.

Leadership requires audacity – the ability to move beyond fear, and embrace the unknown.   Can you take your team beyond their fear so they can see their first move?


Start Before You Are Ready, Part 2 – Do One Thing

… but when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money— booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence

This is the paragraph directly before the Ultimate Motivational Quote (“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy…”).

William Hutchison Murray was a mountain-climber and adventurer.   Here he is, starting before he is ready – booking his ticket and getting “halfway out of our ruts”.

The “definite commitment” of a small step is worth dozens of hours of pondering direction, making backup plans and calculating consequences.

Take it.


The Fatal Flaw in the Lean Startup Model. And How to Fix It.

The Problem With Reality

Human beings don’t like reality much.   It’s awkward.   It’s messy.   It gets in the way of our plans.  It’s unpredictable, organic and dense in ways we’d rather not acknowledge.  We know we live in it, but we really like to pretend that we don’t.

We avoid difficult facts, we shade our thinking, and we use language to obscure what’s going on (“we’re looking forward to right-sizing our organization”).  We listen to music, watch TV, make up stories, and put a huge amount of effort into creating technologies that take us as far away from the irritating rub of the real as we can: drugs, screens, headphones, streaming, wireless and the Oculus Rift. 

This problem hasn’t escaped the notice of thinkers through the ages, who have left us their advice:

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

  — Lao Tzu


Startups and Reality – A Troubled Relationship

From the very beginning of my work in startups I have been fascinated by the relationship between startup organizations and reality.  It is, I would say, troubled.

A startup needs reality.  In the end, somebody has to buy the product for more money than it takes to produce (obvious?   you’d be surprised).   Reality has to accommodate the changes that a startup is banking (literally) on making.   So you would think that people running startups with have some respect for reality, listen to what she was saying, take her into account.

But very often, reality is deeply disrespected.   Startup leaders make assumptions, take her for granted and believe that she is on their side.   Indeed, they believe that reality has a side to take, rather than just being.

Startup leaders make statements about reality, like:

  • “it’s going to ship in October!” (independent of number of engineers, technical feasibility, rate of progress)
  • “we’re guaranteeing $2M in the first year!” (independent of market size, pricing variability, customer acceptance)
  • customers love the new version” (based on a couple of chats with customers in a social setting)

If you’ve spent any time in startups, you can provide your own.


Reality Always Wins.

Isn’t it wonderful that reality always wins?  

 — Deb Burkmann, Yoga Teacher

If you don’t have enough engineers, or the technical work is too daunting, you won’t ship in October.   If there is no addressable market, you won’t make $2M in the first year.  If performance is limited by some fundamental constant, well, then it’s a problem.

But before completely give up our agency, and decide there’s nothing we can do,  let’s consider the other, opposing force.  To begin a startup, you must have, to some degree, the idea that reality is malleable – after all, your goal is to build something that didn’t exist before, and have many (hopefully) millions of people change their lives by using it.  So you must start with the notion that you can, in fact, change reality.   Or at least add to it.

And that’s a large part of the buzz of doing a startup!   We can shrug off the irritating framework we’re stuck with and make something better, different – alter the world around us a bit.  Given how troublesome reality is, it’s no wonder that changing it can seem so exciting.

Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.

 — Tupac Shakur

So a startup needs a healthy relationship with reality.  After all, we are trying to change her, nudge her along a little bit, make her a little less chaotic, lean a little more in our favor.

In which case, it might be a good idea to have a little respect.  Listen to what she’s saying. 

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Getting Started: The Ultimate Motivational Quote

This quote is readily available, and well-known, and worthy of a much longer post.   For now, since we’re talking about How to Get Started, here it is – the ultimate motivational quote to get you to stop preparing and start doing:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. where is my ip . Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

― William Hutchison Murray


Start Before You Are Ready. Stop Preparing. Start Doing.

Preparation.   That’s it.   That’s the trap. 

Rather than write a paragraph, you buy a beautiful leather-bound notebook.   Rather than schedule a meeting with the team to reset the project, you order a book about team leadership from Amazon.  Rather than write the first three slides of the presentation, you spend an hour checking out design templates.

There is nothing wrong with a preparation.   But it makes you feel like you are making progress.   Until you start, you are not.

Write on a legal pad, not a leather-bound book.  Send the email scheduling the meeting. Write the first three slides on a blank template – make it look pretty later.

Start before you’re ready.  (* this advice originally from Iris)



How to Start Anything. Three Steps to Begin A Change.

Leadership requires, indeed is defined by, causing change.

We don’t like change.   We are wired to repeat the patterns that exist, and to resist the work necessary to build new ones.

But until we start, nothing will happen, and we are not leading.   Here are three steps to begin your change.  Do them now:

1.  Work out the first small step.  Don’t take a lot of time to do this.  Thinking about this first move can be a trap that can last for years.  Send a calendar invite to the team-member you need to talk to.  Email your boss and ask for the meeting that is necessary.  Write the first three slides of the presentation you have to build.  Start small.

2.  Clear your mind.  Much of the resistance you feel is emotional, irrational.  Five minutes of quiet meditation will help you see that the first step is just that, the first step.   The world will not end if you get it wrong.   In fact, usually not much will happen at all, except that you have started your journey, which is, in fact, massive.

3.  Set your intention.   Commit yourself to the small energy of what is necessary to take that first move.

And now do it.   And now you’ve started to change yourself, and the world.

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