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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Melissa Perri on Applying Lean Startup in Different Types of Organizations

Melissa Perri on Applying Lean Startup in Different Types of Organizations


2. To get started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brings you to the Lean UX Conference?

I am a product manager and UX designer by trade, I live in New York City and I have been practicing Lean StartUp for quite a few years now and I use it to help me become a better product manager and a better UX designer. I spoke at the Lean UX Conference last year on Lean product management and what is the process that I use for that. Over the past year I was in Italy trying to start my own company using the Lean StartUp methods and before that, I was trying to integrate them in other teams that I was at. So I've seen a wide array of how people can use Lean StartUp and how it interacts in different companies. When I came back from Italy, I now do a consultancy that helps other companies use Lean StartUp and adopt the processes to their companies and their culture.


3. The title of your session was So you want to get Lean integrating Lean StartUp. You started off with a very positive experience and then had some challenges. Maybe it is also about how did you get started and how did that happen?

Yes. The first place that I learned Lean StartUp at was at Lean StartUp Machine. I read the book and my bosses suggested that I go to the workshop. The workshop was really oriented on how to start companies but I saw how it could help me with my features at Open Sky. So I went back and I kind of re-adapted the processes that I learned there to fit my role as a product manager and just saw really great success running these experiments. My boss was completely on board with me running these experiments and we were able to convince the CEO that it was a good idea after we saw some progress.

So, Open Sky was great for innovating and trying to run these processes. When I left there I went to a more structured company and they had just been around longer, they had been using processes that worked for them and it was a different culture so trying to get Lean StartUp integrated there was not as easy as I thought it was going to be and I just had a good, really good, easy path the first time. So, I was shocked that it was harder, but I learned a lot from it and I kept adapting it to it.


4. How did you respond when you entered this organization and they were not interested?

I was a little shocked because when we were interviewing I mentioned I did Lean StartUp, they asked me a lot of questions on it so it seemed like they were really interested and I just expected to hit the ground running because they showed a lot of interest. But when I actually got there, they were just like “No. We are not going to use these things.” So it took me like a few months to really get going, get them started and try to do like little, little pieces. They became more receptive over time, but it was definitely not a quick ramp up.

Todd: One thing you had mentioned was how you were a kind of outcast in one of the companies for a while because you brought this up. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about what happened there.

I feel like, when I went to the more structured organization, because I wanted to practice different things, I was not jiving with the team as much. We were doing a very strict form of Agile and it was almost like Scrumerfall and we were not doing really Agile. We were planning out everything and just breaking it up into scrums which a lot of companies fall into when they try to do Agile. So, it is not really responding to change or anything and it was just a much more traditional process and a more traditional company than I was used to. So, I was kind of missing the freedom of the StartUp at Open Sky and that made me feel like a little bit of an outsider, like I wanted to shake things up but nobody wanted to be shook.


5. [...] What were some of the techniques that you used with them?

Todd's full question: Which often happens in change in organizations. When that happened, you had some ideas on how you were able to kind of shift them from that to be more accepting of it. So, what were some of the techniques that you used with them?

I just started breaking down Lean StartUp and figuring out what are the different components of it that really make up this process and where can I start with something comfortable. I thought that customer research is something really, really key to Lean StartUp and it is something comfortable. It is something that everybody should be doing. So I got buy-in to doing user research with our customers and that is where I started testing our assumptions as a company, to see if they were right or wrong and once I started bringing back that feedback everybody said: “Oh, these are things I did not know” or “These are the things we do not learn when sales people go out and sell things”. So, it is a different perspective on it and they wanted to learn more. That is how we kept integrating different pieces.


6. What was their initial reaction when you came out with something saying that was not good, that something they were about to do was not good?

They were a little shocked at first. They did not change course right away, but they did start to think. I think you cannot expect anybody to change overnight. You are going to bring something back and it might be good, it might be bad, but nobody is going to say: “Oh, tomorrow we are going to do this instead”. But it started making them think and as we kept repeating those processes and finding out more and more stuff, they started to ask how to fix this now, what can we do, what is the next step that we can do to really fix this and change our processes so we can hit this more head on, instead of waiting longer for it.


7. You also found out in this one organization that they had a little bit of baggage in, with the concepts that you were trying to bring in. So, what happened there and how did you deal with that?

I found out after I had tried and failed many times to get these processes implemented. Just from a casual conversation that they did learn about Lean StartUp and somebody just put in MVPs with broken code all over the site and I hear that it happens all the time. Everybody has a bad opinion of MVPs because they do not understand what it is and it is just like “Screw it, ship it” which Bill Beard said yesterday at the conference, but that has nothing to do with Lean but everybody thinks it is Lean. They think that whatever is broken, let me just show it up there and see what happens and that association with Lean has ruined people’s experiences and this well structured organization was not the only company that had that baggage. I met so many other people that said “Oh, Lean StartUp has ruined everything I had done” and it all comes back to the same stories of putting up broken code and broken MVPs and having people get really frustrated with it and leave.


8. What were some of the things you tried to do to help them get past that?

I completely stripped out my language, talking about Lean and about MVPs and I started using terms they were familiar with or just explaining the processes up front. So, I said “We should test that” instead of “We should run an experiment and do an MVP” and “Oh, really? That is an interesting thing to think. Have we talked to our users about it?” instead of “What is your assumption? How do we pick that out?” Once I started talking in a normal language, everybody was really more receptive. When you get rid of the buzzwords, people go “Oh, that makes sense”. I think we just cling to them a little bit too much and they scare people. So, when we drop the buzzwords, people can relate because it makes sense.

Todd: After you dropped the buzzwords and they started getting on board with it, you also mentioned starting to bring them back a bit to the language.

think what you have to do is really strip out the language, start doing it correctly and then reintroduce the terms saying “By the way, that experiment or this MVP, this is actually Lean” and when you start doing that people say “Oh, I thought that was broken stuff, but I see that it actually works now. This is what it is all about?” And then they just start talking about it in a regular context.


9. After you did that and you kind of had some success there, what happened from there? Where did you go from there?

I had some success, but it was still a loop. So you get a little bit of success and the loop I talked about yesterday was demonstrating the value of something and educating people about the processes and you have to keep doing that in order to get more and more trust because when people see it works, they start trusting you more. We started off really small and then we kept growing and growing and growing and I got more and more trust and we got buy-in to do a full Lean experiment, but I left right around then to go start my own company in Italy, but it was a long process. I just kept adding like little by little in there until we started talking about it in terms of experiments and we had a whole wall with assumptions up there. We started putting our customer research together and doing stuff with sticky notes and looking at our hypothesis and I think that was the point where it was finally like: “OK. Now we are trying. Now we are adopting new processes and seeing if it works”.


10. You got exposed to Lean StartUp at Lean StartUp Machine and you got to try it out at a StartUp and figured out how to change it into an organization. So, what is next for you then?

This is why I have done it with my own StartUp, I have done it with Open Sky - I was there from 30 people till it was 100 people, and I kind of saw how that evolved and how we could use these methodologies in it and then the more structed company which was also B2B. Now, I am working with other companies, to teach them what I have learned along the way and learned myself about how to integrate these processes into different cultures. I am working with a development firm right now and what I do is I go in, I observe their culture, I see what their existing processes are and I teach them about Lean StartUp and also Agile and how they can work together. So we are finding a process that really fits them as a team and taking the practices that they need to be successful.


11. While you are doing this what sort of new concepts, or ideas are catching your interest, that you are learning more about how to apply them?

Yes. I have been learning a lot about the theory of Lean and Agile and Cynefin and all these wonderful things over the past year and I think it is really interesting. I have always been very practice-oriented at first, but it is really good to see why you are doing things and how people think about the processes. I have been looking a little bit more at Kanban too trying to get into that. I think it is a really great way of structuring tasks and problems and things to do. So, I am interested in frameworks to make teams work better together. So, I like looking at processes that build trust within a team and make them jive faster and give people more autonomy over problems and their ideas so that they are not just building stuff that management hands down. That is really what intrigues me: how to get good ideas coming from a team rather than a top-down approach.


12. If people want to find out more about what you are up to and things you are doing, how would they do that?

You can reach out to me at, my company is and I also blog at and my twitter handles is @lissijean So, I am always talking about these things if you are interested.

Todd: Excellent. Well, thank you very much.

Thank you.

Jul 04, 2014