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Todd Charron on Lean Startup Machine & Improv in Agile
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| Interview with Todd Charron Follow 0 Followers by Craig Smith Follow 3 Followers on Mar 05, 2014 |

Bio Todd Charron is an Agile coach who combines his background in Improv with over 15 years of experience in the software industry. Todd helps organizations and individuals overcome the fears that are holding them back from reaching the success they desire. Todd has been a speaker at many Agile conferences, is the lead mentor for Lean Startup Machine Toronto and the founder of Follow Your Fear Day.

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3. You are an Agile coach at Architech as well as Planning for Future. Is that right?

Planning for Failure.

Craig: Planning for failure. Sorry, yes, I can’t read my own writing! You are actually also a fellow Agile editor here at InfoQ.

That is true. I am a very busy person sometimes.


4. Todd, you’ve got a bunch of interesting stuff going on. One of the things that I have learnt about you is that you have a big involvement in the Lean Startup movement, particularly in Toronto. Do you want to tell us about that?

Yes. I got involved when a friend of mine, Jason Cheong-Kee-You, he brought Lean Startup Machine to Toronto. He had gone to it in Boston, it just blew his mind, he said “You have to bring it to Toronto”, brought it to Toronto so as a participant at the first one and it was an amazing experience and so ever since then I have been mentoring and speaking at those events in Toronto. I have done three or four since then.


5. So for those who haven’t heard about what Lean Startup Machine is, what’s it all about?

So Lean Startup Machine is really interesting. Some people may have heard about Startup Weekend and Lean’s Startup Machine, they are very different things. At a typical Startup Weekend, people will code a lot of stuff, they’ll write a lot of stuff, they’ll crank out a product. Lean Startup Machine is not about that at all. It is really about getting to the aggressive scientist mindset of Lean Startup. We bring in a bunch of entrepreneurs, they come in, they all want to pitch their ideas, they pitch their ideas and we pick up maybe the top ten that get voted by the group and they break off into groups. What happens is and what never fails is, by the end of the weekend all ten of those ideas are dead. They are dead in the water. Most of them are dead within two or three hours. So we really focus people on “What are your assumptions out here and how can you get out of the building to validate or invalidate those?” and see how quickly people can actually learn as much as possible about who they are trying to address and what problem they are trying to solve for them.


6. I assume there have been some pretty interesting outcomes from one of those events. What are some of the outcomes that you have seen?

There is all kinds of outcomes. There is lots of different things and patterns that I have noticed in teams. The one thing is that every idea ends up dying. So, no matter how much you think it is, how great you think it is. In the talk that I usually give there, one of the things I warn people about before we even get started is that at Lean Startup Machine we kill babies. That is what we do. Whatever your beautiful baby idea is, it will be dead here. So you have to be prepared for that to really let that idea go. We see a lot of people that have a hard time with that. Some groups, they seem to take off, they are not that attached to it, they can go, they can pivot off of it, to use the over-used term. But some groups have a really hard time letting go of that. I find they get stuck for the longest time. It happens over about two and a bit days and they will be stuck for about half the time, maybe even a little bit more and finally, somewhere along the way, they’ll just let it go and try something and then suddenly it all starts taking off.

So, you will see that a lot. I am trying to think about some interesting stories. We have had some really interesting results. We have had some teams that have not had a product by the end. We often tell people: if you are writing code during this event, you are probably doing something wrong. We have had teams, I think two teams, that have raised at the end of it, they have actually made $3,000. That is the high water mark. It is not really about how much money you make but it is just impressive to think that they have found that niche, they have found that pain that people are so interested in having solved that they are willing to give you money with full knowledge that there is no product yet. But they are just that interested in having that problem solved and it is really exciting when you see teams get to that point.


7. What sort of people would give you money, I assume there’s funders or VC’s at the event, or is it more people who are attending and see ideas and think that’s cool?

We are literally talking about getting out of the physical building, so actually going outside and talking to people. If you are actually getting paid for something, it is from those people. I will give you some examples of one. There is, at the end, it is a competition. So each team, at the end, will do a pitch and they will do a pitch and we will bring in local VC’s and people who will listen to their pitch and pick at it and tear it apart and there are prizes that people can win. When people go out, we have had people do, one group that – actually Jason Little was a member of – I think they were called Job Shark or Hire Shark or something like that. The idea that they ended up on, they started off,they actually went a very different way. I will give you the full story here. Their original idea was Jason pitched: “I want people not to work at companies that suck, so we want put together a site that will help people find companies that suck and stay away from them”.

They did not end up there at all. They ended up actually as a processing service for resumes. So companies that are hiring a lot of talent and they have stacks and stacks of resumes but they can’t really figure out who is good and who is not, they need somebody to go through that for them based on certain criteria and say “Here is your top ten people”. They got some people at the event to pay for it, they got a people outside of the event to pay for it – just people they called up or met on the street, or whatever – to actually say yes. Rather than building it, they said “Well, we can have a website that can do this”. They got to the point that they were actually doing what is known as a “concierge MVP”. So what that is, is you are actually just delivering the service. So late one night, there they were, it was Trevor Owens who is actually the founder of Lean Startup Machine, he had hired them to go through a stack that he actually happened to have. They were just pouring through the resumes themselves by hand, they hadn’t automated it or created the algorithm.

They had an idea of what it was, but rather than “Let’s go away for six months and write software to do this”, they actually started trying it out with actual resumes. They said “You pay us x dollars and we will go through it and find you the top ten.” So they just spent that night there going through resumes and said “Here you go. Here is you top ten” and he paid them money. So they actually delivered the service and the idea is - and a lot of things that people do not necessarily get about Lean Startup when you are doing these things is - a lot of what software does – when we think about early software, it automated a lot of this stuff, a lot of the process that we already do. Nowadays a lot of people think: “Well, let’s just build software that does something.” But there is still value in actually doing that manual process. It is very easy to tweak and to adjust and just “We can scrap that whole process and try something different. It is very easy, quick and cheap to do that”. Once you have that, then you can automate it with the software and then you can scale it out and take it off. So that was just one of the teams, that was just one example of a team that did some really cool stuff.


8. [...] Who are they actually getting that information from and I guess my second question to that is how is it valid, how do they know that they have actually spoken to people who might actually even potentially use their product?

Craig's full question: To use that example as one moving forward, who are they actually talking to to pivot. Because these run on a weekend or something right?. So, they get out of the building, are they just walking down to the train station in Toronto and going “Hey. I have got this idea.” How does that work? Who are they actually getting that information from and I guess my second question to that is how is it valid, how do they know that they have actually spoken to people who might actually even potentially use their product?

Yes. A couple of things there, let’s see if I can pull that all together. Usually the location is somewhere in downtown Toronto and depending on who you think your customer is, that may change where you go. We have had some people go to the airport because they are looking for travelers, right? We had one group – this is a fun story, I love this one – there was this sweet newlywed couple. They were just the nicest, sweetest people you could ever meet and everyone celebrated them at the end because they got kicked out of a wedding convention which was awesome to see because they were out there actually doing it and the people running the wedding convention were not too happy with them for doing it. I never would have expected them to get out of their comfort zone that much and do it, but they knew that was going on, they had just recently got married so they had experience being newlyweds and they saw some opportunities there but they needed to validate it. So they came to it and they went out and said “Where are our people?

Well, there is a wedding convention happening down the street. Let’s go there.” We have had groups that were doing sports apps so they’ll go down to a local sports bar and to talk to people there. That is definitely a major part of it, it is just go to where they are. One of the things they talk about – and this actually comes from just pure Lean – is the idea of Gemba walks. The idea of Gemba walks is: go see, ask why, show respect and follow up. Same sort of thing applies. Go to where they are, go see where they hang out, go see them in their element, wherever it is you may find them. Ask them what problems they have, why they do the things they do and actually just learn about them a lot and be very respectful for them because if you are going out on the street and taking to people, you are using their time and you are interrupting their lives. They don’t owe you anything, but you would be surprised, when you actually start talking with people, asking them about the problems they have, they have no problem engaging with you. They actually will love to actually come up and talk with you. Also, at Lean Startup Machine there is a whole process to it. Actually, Jason Cheong-Kee-You and I are currently in the process of working out a different version of the validation board which Trevor Owens put together for Lean Startup Machine which truly helped guide people through this process. What this board does is, you want to identify first who is your potential customer. And we label it the customer hypothesis at Lean Startup Machine because you do not know that they are actually your customer. This is who you think you are serving, right?

You have a problem hypothesis. What problem do you think these people have? And we always tell people right away, when you have those two things, you should already be out there, out of the building, talking to people and making sure that it’s true. So having conversations with people and find out what problems do they really have. From there, once you have that fit, then you can actually move on to a solution hypothesis - how can we solve this problem? But you shouldn’t do that until you have actually confirmed that you actually do have the customer is who you think they are and they have the problem that you think they have. One of the things that kind of comes up there as well is, it’s important when go out there not to be a salesman. I have seen this because a lot of entrepreneurs go out there and they are very much pitching. They have got this idea that they want to do, they want to pitch it to people and say “How does this sound? Is this a good idea?”

Totally not the thing you should do at Lean Startup Machine. What you really want to do is just go to the person who you think is your potential customer, start talking to them roughly about the subject of whatever it is and just ask them to talk about it. Let them tell you about the problem. Just say “What sort of problems do you have with this?” Don’t say “Hey, do you always find that this is a problem?” Because people generally want to be nice and they’ll be like “Yeah, yeah. I kind of have that problem” But what you want to find is that problem that is really just burning with them, they’ll be like “Let me tell you my problem with this thing! My problem with this thing is this” When you get that and when you find that all the people have that and they are really passionate about it, now you’ve got really strong validation. In Lean Startup Machine you are not going to get to talk to that many people. You do have a small selection, I should put a caveat with that because when people think “Oh, I did not get to talk to that many people” Some people may think “Oh, three, four, five, ten”. No, you can still talk to like fifty, sixty, seventy people. You can really get out there. There are teams that just get out of the building and do a whole ton of interviews, but it is not going to be like thousands of people, you are not going to get tens of thousands of people. But what you will do is you will find out which ones just flop. That is the first thing that will happen. That thing that you think is so great, you will go out there, you will talk to ten people and not one of them will say they have that problem and maybe if you push them “Do you, do you” and they go “I suppose”. But you do not want the people that “I suppose”. The people you want to get are the people that go “that is my problem” because it is much easier to actually find the solutions for those people that work.


9. Then what is the criteria of, I am not sure “winning” is the right word, but coming away at the end of Lean Startup Machine and has there been any success stories in Toronto past one of these events?

Normally you would see, pitched things is just how great is your product, right? When the judges evaluate at Lean Startup Machine, yes, that is part of it but they like to think you have thought through the business model of this and how this is going to work. But what they really want to see is how much have you learned about your customers over this. So if you came in and said “It was this, it was that” and you did it, well “OK. You did not learn that much” and that never happens by the way. I have done three or four of these now and the top ten get picked and every single time, every one of those ideas is dead by the end of it.

It seems fine, really great stuff, but it is never the things that you saw at the beginning, even in your mind you might think “That is a really cool idea!”. Turns out it bums every single time. It is 100% kill rate at Lean Startup Machine. As far as companies going out, there is one for sure I know of that is still working on actually. They won at one of Lean Startup Machines, I think it was the second or the third one and they are actually continuing to work on it and are actually starting to build the product now, at this point. They have only been doing it in Toronto for a little over a year now, so it takes some time to get some traction with them but I know there is at least a few teams that have stuck with it and stuck with their product so we will see how they do.


10. Lean Startup has been starting to get some traction in the enterprise and I think we have seen a few talks here at the Agile conference about it. Having been through that process but also putting your Agile Coach hat on, what are your thoughts on Lean Startup applied to more enterprise type problems?

Definitely it can. I always talk about this too. Lean Startup is - I love Lean Startup - horribly named, horribly named, because a lot of this stuff comes from Steve Blank, not so much from Lean though there is a lot of Lean aspect to it and it doesn’t just apply to startups. These concepts apply everywhere. They just happen to have started with startups, which is great. So, you can definitely apply these in the enterprise level and I was actually at David Bland’s talk the other day and he brought up something that I love to do with organizations which is if you have a kanban wall that has your process going through, stick a validate column on the end to make sure because someone, when they pitched that idea, whatever that feature, whatever it is, they had to convince somebody to actually invest the time and money to build that. They had to have had something in that idea about how it was going to work and how it was going to make the company money.

Well, let’s close that loop at the end and actually figure it out. Actually, I have a funny story. I did this at one company – I have done it with several companies – but one that I did it with, the first time when we got it up there, moved something over and I asked the product guy: “Have you validated this yet?” It had been launched maybe a month or two before and he’s like “I haven’t really checked yet. Let me go check with them.” So I said: “All right.” He comes back and tells me “Yes. So this thing which was really important to one of our big customers that was really upset about this. That customer was all set and ready to leave us and nobody had told him that his problem had been fixed”. He was going to leave over this issue. His problem had been fixed like a month ago and no one bothered to tell him and he was all irate and ready to leave and say: “You know what? I am fed up waiting for this” but his problem had already been fixed and no one told the customer. And that happens time and time again, right? We have done all this stuff, we fixed all these things but did anybody check to see if it actually did what we thought it would? If the customer is happy with it now? No. We usually don’t.

I think there is a lot of fear behind that because – I guess I can talk about another thing that I do, as well. I organize an event called “Follow Your Fear Day” which encourages people to do things they have always wanted to do but were afraid to do. The next one is August 24th and we’ve got a bunch of people signed up, say“I am going to do this. I am going to do that. I am going to do it by August 24th.” I think, in organizations fear holds us back a lot. People do not want to have those tough conversations, they do not want to have the awkward conversations. If you were the guy who pitched that feature, it is better off not knowing if it flopped, right? Because you do not want to be going up to the CEO and saying: “By the way, that thing we just spent a million dollars on, nobody likes it.” So there is a lot of fear around that and I think Lean Startup ties into that because it helps you reduce that fear. We can go out there without writing any software and actually figure out if you are completely on the wrong track. Well, OK. That is pretty safe, right? I can do that. Whereas traditionally you see comapnies invest six months or a year of development into something and nobody wants to know if that tanks.

Craig: You are talking about fear and I actually noticed you out in the open space, running a few improv sessions in something you call “Improv in Agile” which kind of leads in to what you were talking about following your fear. Interesting concept. I have read your stuff about that .Tell us a little bit about what “Improv in Agile” is all about.

I have a video course that if you go to you can grab, called “Improv your Agile or Scrum Daily Stand-up”. The idea is most people’s daily stand ups suck. They are horrible, horrible things to be at. Everyone just comes in with like their coffee and they are like “Oh, God” and the worst ones become status reports which is totally not the point. It is totally not supposed to be a status report. This is supposed to be for the team to coordinate their efforts. The thing I found in a lot of stand ups is that the things that really make them successful are: Are people making eye contact with each other? Are they listening? Is the energy up? Things like that, that really help people get focused and improv does a lot this. You can do a quick improv warm up in 30 seconds to a minute and suddenly you just see the life come to the stand-up because people are awake, they’re energetic, they are listening because they just did something either very physical or mental that got them up and going with it.

Beyond that, improv comes a lot from fear. I study with Keith Johnstone, who is one of the founders of modern improv and with a few other people. They have really focused on a lot of the fears. I actually do a talk on fear and improv, which I did at Agile Tour this year. One of the connections which is interesting is we often say “You should do this. You should do that. You should do this” There are rules, the rules of Scrum. You must have your daily stand-up, you must have your sprints, you must have a demo, you must have these things. In improv there are a lot of rules too, that people often hear: you must say “Yes, and” - that is you must agree with the other person’s idea and add something to it, don’t ask questions and things like that. And Keith, I did a workshop with him, and he made a very interesting point about this. He said: “People often accuse me of being very much about the rules and into this stuff” and he’s like “I don’t really care about that. What I care is that when you do those things that you don’t do them from fear. Because most people do them out of fear.

They say no in a conversation because they are afraid of going forward. They ask questions because they don’t want to actually commit to pushing something forward.” I think that equally applies when you look at something like Scrum, right? Should you do a demo? Oh, you should. Do you actually have your clients in there every day working with you? Oh, yes, totally. Then do you need a demo? Probably not. So if you got rid of demo because of that you are doing it because the team actually brings customers in regularly, we do this thing, but a lot of people will not do the demo because: “Oh, it is hard to get the stakeholders. We do not want them to really see it when it is not done.” They are doing it out of fear, right? Same thing with iterations. “Two-week sprints? That is hard. We are scared we are not going to get software done so maybe we won’t do sprints. We will just build and we will just get it done when it is done and it will be like six months”. That is doing it out of fear. But if you are doing continuous delivery and every checkin is launching, maybe you do not need sprints any more, right? So, yes, you should do these things, as long as if you stop doing them, you are not doing it out of fear. That is the same kind of similarity in both that I find.


11. If someone wants to get started and think about how to do this improv idea or they are just witnessing fear in their teams, what is the best place for them to start at?

For improv, you can go to I have got my course there, I also have articles there on fear, Lean Startup and Improv, all there. is the event. My fear, as an improviser, the thing I did last year on the first year we were in this was, I did a one-man solo completely improvised show for 45 minutes where I played every character and did every scene all by myself and it was terrifying. So people kept saying to me “A. I have to do something again this year and B. We want you to do that again” So, this year I did, in Toronto there is a large theatre festival that happens every year called the Fringe Festival and I did that and I did the show there and I did eight completely different, all completely made up shows. Eight shows in ten days. It was easily the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but at the same time I am so glad I did it. That is kind of the thing. If you check out our Facebook page for “Follow your Fear Day” which is, we have videos from all the stuff that people did and they did amazing stuff. We had people who wrote a novel, we had one woman who took some opera lessons because she was a singer but she hadn’t really gotten back into opera lessons and wanted to actually consider it as a profession. So she spoke there and she sung and performed there and it was amazing. So, lots of cool stuff happening there. So, those are places where you can check it out.

Craig: Well hopefully if more people follow their fear and applied that to Agile techniques I think that we would probably be a lot further down the road then we currently are.

Hopefully, yes. Definitely!

Craig: Well, it has been great talking to you Todd. Thanks for your time.

Thank you, Craig.

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