Recently (13-15 April 2012) my colleague Yann and I participated in our first Startup Weekend in Lyon (France). We had multiple objectives when going there, including having fun, preparing for organizing a similar Startup Weekend in Luxembourg later this year, pitching some of our startup ideas and evaluating the spread of Agile concepts and practices amongst the community of entrepreneurs. In this post I would like to share some insights about the later aspect.
As agile practitioners we already know that Scrum in particular is very well suited for new product development and we have actually seen the benefits of Agile for such projects in both new companies and mature organizations. But Yann had the occasion a few weeks ago to discuss with a startup team that was using Scrum with only partial knowledge and understanding of the rationales behind it, hence limited benefits. So I wanted to see on the field to what extent Agile methods are understood and used by innovative teams and entrepreneurs. A Startup Weekend would be an ideal Lab for such an observation.
I had a first try on Friday evening by pitching my idea of a starter kit for new agile teams (more about this soon). I quickly realized that this was far from most participants’ knowledge area and concerns. My pitch was not a winner and I was wondering if anyone in the room had ever heard of Agile.
When I eventually joined a team, I did not want to be too pushy for Agile, but rather to see how the team would become more familiar with agile along the weekend. Actually, when discussing with other participants it appeared that some of them are already practicing some sort of Agile process, but only a few of them know what Agile and Scrum actually are.
One of the key aspects of Startup Weekends is the participation of tech and startup leaders as coaches (the “mentors”). Some of those “mentors” were the first to bring Agile explicitly on the table, as a proper framework for managing the kind of innovative product/service development projects that we were at during that weekend.
What stroke me in the team I joined was the high number of hypotheses that were taken without a structured approach to test and validate those assumptions. I believe that several mentors participated in initiating a feedback loop with the team so that we could learn and pivot from the original ideas in order to create a more appealing value proposition and business model (Yann’s team actually pivoted multiple times and quite often all along the weekend . I did not hear anyone refer to the Lean Startup movement boosted by Eric Ries’ book, but a lot of discussions were really in line with it.
At the end of the weekend, the 15 teams that were formed to work on selected ideas (selected out of 42 initial ideas pitched on Friday evening) presented their projects to a jury composed of entrepreneurs and other personalities. While the evaluation criteria were intentionally kept “secret” it appeared clearly that the jury expected to be thrilled by a great vision backed by a few hard facts & figures, rather than a full 3-years business plan. I felt a strong agile mindset in this moment when it was clearly recognised that faced with so much uncertainty, it was vital to create a learning organization that aims at a great goal, to inspect and adapt continuously along the way, instead of building a full-fledged plan based on pure guesses.
My last comment is that all 3 winning teams were not only able to present an exciting business idea but also to demonstrate tangible results (e.g. a domain name and an embryo of web application), which for me shows once again the importance of demonstrating your actual progress to build trust with your customers / investors, another key Agile concept!