Is Lean Startup The Future of The Workplace?

It’s kind of like an orange juice commercial from the 70s: “Lean Startup: It’s Not Just For Startups Anymore.” Or that’s how it seemed to me on the first day of the Lean Startup Conference.

Though many observers, including myself, have urged the adoption of Lean Startup (and startup principles in general) into the workplaces of larger organizations, the emphasis this year seemed a bit more pronounced to me. “We’re not just making startups better,” was the message that I got, “we’re making everything better.”

Maybe. I’m cautious of “Lean-Washing” zealotry, but I was impressed by many of the speakers. Here’s what I learned from two of them.

Saving The World

Robin Chase, now of Buzzcar, ex- of Zipcar, went from customer to global focus, and — really — saving the world. And she connected the “workplace” with “the community”: even when we don’t all get paid by the company, we can still help to solve a problem of common concern or to use resources more efficiently.

She talked about the humble beginnings of Zipcar, when they had two cars and less than two dozen members. Here’s how it worked: You’d walk to her house, walk up to the porch, and on the porch, under the glider, under the pillow, were the keys. You’d get the car, pull some papers out of the glove box, and record the start time, the stop time, and odometer readings.

In those 2-and-a-half months, she said, that’s how people used the car. And it was a going concern, and grew to make some serious money.

Her point: Get in touch with your customer as fast as possible. Don’t worry so much about the technology. Every time that an organization gets more money or more insight or more technology, it start doing something other than focusing on the customer. “Whenever you do that,” she said, “you have to do things over,” meaning that you might be so focused on something other than the customer that you might be trying to shoot the wrong target.

With the $500M sale of Zipcar to Avis, you probably want to give her a little bit of street cred on this matter.

Chase isn’t just focusing on how to launch the next great startup with a minimum viable product. She’s using her lessons from Zipcar and her current gig as BuzzCar CEO to guide an idea that she called “Peers, Inc”.

She talked about how Zipcar “leverages excess capacity”. What if, she asked, you designed your entire company that way: you could “leverage excess capacity, use other people’s stuff whenever you can, and let other people do the work.”

Chase proceeded to blow everyone’s mind in the room by declaring, “We don’t think of customers as consumers, we think of them as co-creators.”

It’s not a totally new concept. Chase introduced the “Peers, Inc” concept to TEDx Global back in 2012.

But when Chase boldly stated that Peers Inc was taking the best of large organizations and the power of individuals to go “from the old industrial economy to the new collaborative economy,” I almost stood up and cheered (and I was at a remote telecast site, so that would have been excessively silly.)

We are all, said Chase, “swimming in the sea of excess capacity,” whether that’s an idle car, or intellectual capacity, or the excess roof-over-your-head capacity that AirBnB sells. The question is, will we actually use it?

It was particularly exciting to me to see Chase highlight the open data movement as an example of what can happen when excess capacity is connected with a platform (in this case, government). Dang right. You have only to look at models like “Adopt A Hydrant” (or, more recently, my friend Steve Spiker’s (Adopt A Drain)( program that uses open data and government platforms to encourage citizens to participate in solving problems that affect all of us. (The Oakland city government site says that “volunteers help prevent flooding of roads and sidewalks during winter storms… Keeping drains clear throughout the year also boosts water quality by reducing the amount of debris and trash flowing through the storm drains and out to the City’s creeks and ultimately, San Francisco Bay and the oceans beyond.”)

Chase thinks that excess capacity and community can even solve gigantic problems like global warming. She quoted Richard Branson as famously saying that “global warming is one of the greatest wealth-generating opportunities of our generation”.. She made the case that excess capacity — and the structure of “Peers Inc” can help. Maybe so.

The Power Of Personal Output

Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress and founder of Automattic, was another connection of Lean Startup to the workplace.

Here’s a stat that will blow your mind. Out of 225 WordPress employees, only 10 have ever left.

Well, sure.

Automattic has a famously employee-friendly workplace. So of course Mullenweg was challenged by on-stage interviewer Sarah Milstein about accountability: how are people accountable for working when they say that they’re working? Mullenweg responded with a question: “What does that mean, to be working?” He rhetorically asked why we think that someone’s working if they show up, and they’re not drunk, or not asleep at their desk? He said as human beings we’re designed to perceive and judge — but what matters most is output.

He said, “There are ways to measure outputs but they’re ultimately simplistic.”

He suggested that instead, “Ultimately you’re on a team, The team is small, fully autonomous, so if a colleague doesn’t show up for a day or two you’ll probably notice, assuming that they’re useful.” If they’re not useful — he left that up to the audience’s imagination.

“I don’t really care what hours you work, how late you sleep, it’s all about your output. Maybe someone can do the work that the rest of us do in 8 hours in one hour… good for them!”

What creates the atmosphere that allows this company to succeed and still not care very much about micromanaging their employees?

Let me suggest that it’s these things:

  • Matt pointed out that, at Automattic, there’s no change in compensation when you become a team lead. And, as a Twitter friend of mine pointed out, there’s also no commensurate change in compensation if you decide that leadership just isn’t for you. When you think about it, this means that you end up with leaders who are intrinsically motivated versus extrinsically motivated, or, to say that in English: they want to lead. It’s not because they’re getting the big bucks. This is no small difference and it really matters.

  • As with Jim Collins’ “Good To Great” framework, there’s a focus on getting the right person on the bus. Matt said, “You can’t manage your way out of a bad team.” Anyone who has ever managed any team more significant than a lemonade stand would give that a “hell, yeah!”

  • Automattic does the same kind of experimentation that Lean Startup encourages when it comes to employees. They essentially do paid tryouts. They pay every candidate — from CFO candidate to developer — $25 an hour. If it works out, great. If not, the candidate has at least some compensation and the company hasn’t just made an expensive and painful mistake.

Is There Lean Startup Fairy Dust?

Will a Lean Startup fairy godmother swoop down to save us all? Is better work life, and better life, and saving the world all about Lean Startup?

Well, probably not. I think there are a lot of great things coming out of Lean Startup, but it would be a mistake to think that Lean Startup is the end-all be-all. Lean Startup is working because — outside of Lean Startup — the “flat” world now offers more work choices and greater freedom for individuals, as documented by Chris Guillebeau, Reid Hoffman, and others. If we’re all slaves in the infernal machine, it’s awfully hard to start experimenting. But the world of startups, the Internet, and globalism have combined to give us a bunch of choices that aren’t the same choices that our parents had in front of them.

Is this all sustainable?

When Matt Mullenweg introduced his macromanagement and global workplace, he kept hearing that “it’s not going to work once you reach beyond a certain number of employees.” That number started small, and as Automattic grew, doubters kept increasing that number.

So let’s rephrase that question. It’s not “is it sustainable forever,” but “is this model bringing us to a better place now, and can be experiment, iterate, and learn to create an even better model in the future?”

I think we can.