Agile HR + Talent Leadership + Technology

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Agile HR + Talent Leadership + Technology

Get Started

Agile HR + Talent Leadership + Technology

Get Started

Boots On The Ground: Q&A with Tristan Kromer, Lean Startup Circle

1. You have a largely diverse background – singer/producer, VP of Marketing, Founder, blogger, coach, advisor and mentor. How did you get into Lean Startup Circle? 

I’d been attending LSC events since I moved to San Francisco almost five years ago from Vietnam. It was a great way to get introduced to lean startup concepts. When Rich Collins, the founder, didn’t have time to run the group any longer, Eric [Ries] asked me to take over.


2. If an alien landed on planet Earth and met with you, Tristan Kromer, what would it learn about the lean startup circle? (Describe what lean does.)

The alien probably wouldn’t learn much because I’d be pestering it with questions.

One of the principle tenets of lean is admitting your own ignorance and learning to ask the right questions of yourself and your business model. If we can ask the right questions, we can find the right answers. If we persist in offering up advice and opinions we learn nothing.

In product development, this means asking a lot of questions about who the customer is and what the problem is before offering up a potential solution. The other way around is just a solution looking for a problem to solve. That’s wasteful.

Lean Startup Circle is a group of people who ask each other tough questions that challenge fundamental assumptions. So we tend to be very curious and ask a lot of questions. Except for during interviews. :)

3. What is different about lean methodology in comparison to traditional processes?

I don’t consider lean to be a methodology. It’s more of a philosophy about reducing waste that goes back to Toyota lean manufacturing. Toyota believed that Lean is not about tools, such as Kanban or Value Stream Mapping, but the reduction of three types of waste: muda (“non-value-adding work”), muri (“overburden”), and mura (“unevenness”). These principles help to systematically expose problems and force continual improvement towards an ideal state of value creation.

So if the original goal of lean was to eliminate any activity that didn’t result in value creation for the customer, Eric and Steve Blank’s insight was that most startups were operating in unknown or highly volatile environments, where the definition of value was often unknown, even by the customer. From this perspective, any activity that does not focus on learning to identify true value for the customer is wasteful. So the primary function of a startup is to discover a sustainable (and scalable) business model, and the unit of progress is measured in units of learning.

The various tools and methodologies such as smoke test, continuous integration, etc. are workarounds adapted to different situations, but not the lean philosophy itself.

4. What is a minimum viable product? Why are having short iterations helpful?

Those are different questions.

Eric defines a minimum viable product as, “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”

So in Eric’s view, an MVP could just be a landing page where you test the demand of a product by seeing if anyone will signup or pre-pay for it. A kickstarter campaign falls under this definition as well.

Personally I consider an MVP as a version of a new product which allows you to validate product / market fit. Under this definition, the MVP has to include a channel to reach customers and a means to get feedback on it. Otherwise it’s just a fancy widget sitting in a dark closet separated from customers. That’s not sufficient. The product has to reach customers and there has to be a feedback mechanism in place, even if that channel is you selling the product door to door and the feedback is people throwing rotten tomatoes at you.

Short iterations are helpful if you accept the idea that the purpose of a startup is to learn. If the purpose of a startup is to learn about the customer, product, and business model, then releasing often is critical because you can’t learn without feedback.

If you don’t care about feedback because you have a crystal ball that predicts how customers will respond to your product, short iterations make no sense.

5. What do you think is the most challenging part for a startup when pivoting a product/service?

Keeping the company true to the vision even if pivoting the product.

Some companies abandon their initial driving purpose by chasing a shiny bauble. Some are very successful because they rightly abandon something that wasn’t going to be sustainable. I think Flickr and Groupon were good examples of this.

Groupon was originally helping people rally around a cause. What are they doing now? Are they really helping people? It’s great that it’s making some money and they are way more successful in this regard than I probably ever will be. I’m just not sure what the vision of that company is. It makes me sad to think of a company with no core vision. Where is the soul?

6. Is lean having an impact on the way large companies function (flat organization vs. hierarchical vs. matrix; practices for introducing new products or services, etc.)? If so, how?

Yes, but it’s very early still. Companies are beginning to adopt lean startup principles and learning to behave less like a single monolithic unit composed of red tape and committees and more like an innovation ecosystem.

The trick is to stop pretending that corporate structure doesn’t exist. There are branding police, legal guardians, and all manner of reasons not to do lean. But putting in place an eco-system level structure that allows startups to exist, unmolested by corporate processes, lean startup can thrive.

It takes a strong sponsor to kick aside the red tape and make this sort of investment, but you can see it happening in companies like Intuit, GE, Pitney Bowes, and Swisscom. Even the BBC has an accelerator program!

7. Talent socket is an online platform for HR pros and talent recruiters looking to replace old, outdated practices with new methodologies and technology. What are some practices you do at the lean startup circle workshops that’ll help our professionals get more organized and efficient?

Really lean startup is just about continuous improvement. So getting more organized and efficient is a natural consequence of that pursuit.

Personally, I’d love to see HR professionals start implementing lean startup practices. I can’t remember ever seeing an HR department tracking metrics with an information radiator showing the % of leads converting to employees, % turnover in the company, average time for a new employee to become productive, etc.

I’d also love to see HR thinking seriously about how to recruit for a lean mindset. I’d rather have a team member with mediocre skills but a passion for self-improvement than a well-trained genius with an ego problem. Silicon Valley often tends to favor ninjas and rockstars rather than team players.

8. Instead of launching new products, HR professionals pitch new ideas and stories that influence the way various stakeholders operate and make decisions. Stakeholders can range from the CEO/CFO to current employees and new hires. What advice can lean startups give to our professionals when being responsible for satisfying a variety of stakeholders?

Those stakeholders are your customers. Those ideas, stories, and structure are products. It’s no different than any other department or company.

It’s not about getting a new coffee machine because people write that in the suggestion box. Why are people asking for a new coffee machine? Is the old one broken because of over use? Is it because people are working unsustainable hours? Is the coffee machine serving a social function that builds morale? Should you get a slower coffee machine so that people spend more time in the break room? Should you get a fast one so they can get back to work?

HR shouldn’t be about filling requests from various stakeholders. It’s a critical position that delivers value to the company. It’s up to HR to determine what those needs are by listening to their customers and delivering products and services that truly provide value.



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