Applying Lean Startup in an Enterprise with Steve Sanderson


I had the pleasure of hearing Steve Sanderson speak at the Austin Lean Startup Circle last night.  Although I’m a big fan of the Lean Startup, with a working wife and two little kids it’s rare that I prioritize a Meetup over some family time before the kids go to bed.  But I really wanted to hear what Steve had to say about applying lean startup methodology at Rackspace.

If you don’t know Steve, he was VP of Product at a couple of companies, most recently Food on the Table, and was featured in the Lean Startup book and on Eric Ries’ blog.  A little less than a year ago he made the switch to Rackspace to be their Resident Lean Startup Expert.  I was curious to know what that meant and any challenges he faced.  There aren’t a ton of people working to apply these principles in a larger enterprise and since I’ve now had the opportunity to run a innovation lab at two medium-sized companies (Bazaarvoice and Indeed) I want to see how other people view the challenges.

I loved how he started by pointing out that there are a couple of different contexts for applying these principles, and he ordered them from easiest to hardest:

  1. A Startup.  Easiest because there are fewer people, there are no products already operating at scale.  There is no revenue and brand to protect.
  2. A Innovation Lab inside an Existing Organization.  Harder than a startup (there is revenue and brand to protect), but you only need to persuade and convince a limited number of people, and protect them from the rest of the organization.
  3. Existing Teams inside an Existing Organization.  Hardest.  There are existing products running at scale.  There is revenue and brand to protect.  There are a lot of stakeholders to get onboard.

I appreciate that Steve was drawn to Rackspace to pursue the hardest challenge – working on the organizational change required to make these principles part of the product culture in an existing organization.

Steve started with some tips for effective organizational change.  Things like:

  • Have an internal sponsor / partner
  • Establish relationships (He used the expression build rapport, and talked about interviewing people – my preference to accomplish this is to take people to lunch).
  • Understand where value is created and exchanged, internally and externally
  • Take a step back from the acute symptoms and look at the big picture
  • Start small, and build upon wins
  • Use evidence that these principles work, rather than words to persuade
  • Be accountable for these changes

When he mentioned the need to protect the brand and revenue I suspected he was a fan of Marty Cagan, and he confirmed this later in his talk.

I had a chance to ask a couple of questions, but I still would love to know how he feels about the challenges of implementing dual-track agile, which is really necessary to get lean-principles running in a team that is also responsible for operating one or more products/features at scale.  Since Steve is based here in Austin I’m going to see if I can chat with him further to go into more detail about this.  I will be sure to share what I discover.

About brendansterne

Sr Director, Product Incubator
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