Taking Stock: 12.19.2014

by jennifermshoop

I recently attended The Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco.  I learned a lot that I have brought back to my work in Chicago, the most powerful of which is the liberating discovery that everyone fails in the product space, and that your strength as a product lead stems from resiliency and faith in the process of iterative design.  (As an aside, it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t call product people “process people.”)  I took away a lot of gems, some useful activities and frameworks, and a newfound appreciation for the art of the presentation.

My favorite quote of the entire event came from Dan Milstein, who said:

“Lead by owning the questions, not the plans.”

Despite a broadly positive experience, I did bristle at the cultish-ness of the event.  There was something distasteful about the “us” vs “them” rhetoric woven throughout the presentations, as though all conference attendees were of the enlightened ilk while the rest of “upper management” and “the establishment” were blindly and mindlessly using antiquated, problematic, and unsuccessful techniques.  I do happen to believe that the lean startup methodology should be the ethos of the modern tech company, but there is also the question of what happens when a company grows up and necessarily needs to focus on efficiency vs. innovation in order to scale cheaply.  Perhaps it’s unfair to position these two forces at opposite ends of the seesaw, but there was something in the language of many-a talk that made we want to push back a bit, made me want to understand whether there are certain environments, timeframes, situations, etc., where lean needs to take a backseat to other forces for growth.

But this is probably the contrarian voice in me that draws back at any “us vs. them” formulation.

At any rate, one of the most helpful practices I picked up and will apply to my own work moving forward is what I will rename as the weekly learning inventory: a five minute activity each Friday to pause and take stock of major/top-of-mind learnings from the previous week.  I will be sharing these here each week.  A good hook to draw me back into writing more liberally about my observations and experiences.

Today I will share two weeks’ worth of inventory:

December 12, 2014

  • Lead by owning the questions, not the plans.
  • When it comes to pricing, ask for as much as you can with a straight face.  (Great advice from a mentor of mine out in SF.  I’ve been selling our technology to willing, like-minded partners and, despite a fair amount of research and consultation and thinking and reading, still feel insecure about the pricing model we have in place.  The process of validating it through customer conversations is not only time-consuming but also, from a personal standpoint, challenging for me.  I’ve never been in a position to ask for money.  My mentor had the above advice to offer, alongside the general provocation: “Ask for twice as much as you feel comfortable asking for.”  A speaker at LEAN corroborated this advice when he said: “If you’re not uncomfortable asking for money, you’re asking too late.”)
  • Our app is the space between nothing and a financial product. (Our COO Joe pointed out that our technology is sort of a stepping stone towards having a student open a financial product; I hadn’t been thinking of the technology as a trainer of sorts, but he’s onto something with this framing.)
  • Piloting something is a series of unpleasant encounters with reality. (#truedat)
  • Our app is best-suited to drive results around saving and mindful spending.  (We have been pushing to conceive of the app as a one-stop shop for issuing challenges across a range of financial habits and practices, but the photo-centric nature of the technology really fits in best for saving and spending habits.  It’s frankly challenging to envision interesting, generative challenges around safe financial product use or making money, though I’m open to pushback.

December 19, 2014

  • High achievers own the process, not the end product.
  • Most (even highly traditional) schools and folks that work in them view financial education as “dry.”  (An interesting re-framing of our value proposition.  I think that if we can sell them on the idea that we’re doing something fun, light, different to have huge, real impact, we’ll see lots of hand waving.)
  • At the end of the day, we are all humans with complex psychologies.  Business is not as rational as one might expect.  (I have been slowly coming to this perspective over the past six years.  Everything we do is driven by humans, their motivations, their passions, and their hatreds.  This is so basic that it’s almost embarrassing to write, but I have been recently struck by the power of truly thinking through the motivations of the person across the table, whether it’s a partner, a mentor, a student, a staff member.)
  • “I wish access was enough.  I wish education as enough.  But they’re not.”   (An interesting speaker from Ounce of Prevention mentioned this during an event I spoke at earlier this week.  She was provoking some of the students that had completed a class on human centered design and put together project pitches to think beyond education, beyond access — what will really drive change in a community?  This gets to the point above.)
  • Lean methodologies are a continuation of the human centered design process.  (I see them as tightly related, and possibly not in a temporal sense.  There are a lot of different overlaps.  I think that HCD is centered upon a language of empathy whereas lean is more about analytics and growth, which shade them in different ways, respectively.)
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