Start From Here: 5 Recommended Reads For Learning Lean & Agile

Actually, 2 + 3 books; one each on Lean and Agile (Scrum), two on the changing nature of marketing across your enterprise and customer lifecycle, and one on positive psychology.

The Lean Startup, Eric Ries, 2011

Here are some quotes from this ground zero book of the Lean Startup movement. If they resonate with you, this is your book:

  • A startup manager’s job is to find a synthesis between the startup’s vision and what customers would accept; it’s not to surrender to what customers think they want, or to tell customers what they ought to want.

  • In a startup, who the customer is and what the customer might find valuable are unknown, part of the very uncertainty that is an essential part of the definition of a startup.

  • A startup is an organization designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

  • “Learning” is the essential unit of progress for startups.

  • The question is not “Can this product be built”? It should be “Should this product be built?” and “Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?”

  • Everything a startup does-is understood to be an experiment designed to achieve validated learning.

Build-measure-learn, repeat. This book is about that.

Highly insightful read for managers of non-startup organizations too.

Scrum, Jeff Sutherland, 2014

This book is about Agile, explained through one of its popular implementation frameworks Scrum. The author Jeff Sutherland is one of the original members behind the Agile Manifesto (2001), and the co-creator of Scrum.

It’s in autobiographical sequence, walking us through how the author became Agile over the course of his colorful professional life, discovering and formulating Agile and Scrum principals from the many shortfalls of waterfall project management and hierarchical functional organization structures he witnessed and experienced.

Scrum can be quite structured, and blindly and rigidly enforcing it will just be another disciplinarian project management exercise and not necessarily value creating, missing the point of Agile. There’s reason behind each Scrum element, and it’s really important that not only the leaders but also the team members are fully aware of, for example why there is each a Product Owner and Scrum Master, what’s the real point of daily standups, and the concept of “velocity” from one Sprint to another. From that perspective, this book is probably not just recommended but required reading.

The book also dedicates a whole chapter on “Happiness”, my favorite subject (organizational behavior is one of my core practices). Agile is very “pull”; it encourages the average team member to be more involved and initiative taking. As a leader, you probably have many experiences trying to make your guys speak up and “run with the ball”, always ending back to telling people what to do. Agile is a systematic approach to promoting communication and action from all levels of members in the team, creating empowerment, and ultimately happiness. And with all things Scrum, there’s also a measurement of happiness. Very interestingly, in the book it gives an example of how the happiness index can function as a leading indicator to a drop in “velocity”, the efficacy measurement of Sprints.

The Startup Owner’s Manual, Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, 2012

This book is a follow up to the 2006 original “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” (I think the original title was more cool). According to the authors the four steps that a startup goes through is: 1) customer discovery, 2) customer validation, 3) customer creation and 4) company building.

The writing is a bit old school and the illustrations are, well, artistic, but it’s a really good read because the authors are very direct in telling the many things you should NOT do as a startup and with good reasoning. Are you acting like “I know what the customer wants” and “I know what features to build”? Have you been too focused on your launch date? Are you proud of your “relentless execution”? Are you really sure your earlier successes are not presumed success, and is it really time to scale? Any experiences of “management by crisis”? They are all written here and you were warned!!

It’s a 600 page book but you don’t have to read the whole thing. The book is in three parts, part 1 is “The Strategy Guide”, part 2 and 3 are “step-by-step guides” for doing businesses in web/mobile channels and physical channels respectively. I recommend reading part 1 and keeping the rest as reference.

Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore, 2014 (3rd edition)

The previous book by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf already teaches that the focus and activity of a startup significantly changes through each customer and enterprise stage. This book takes that teaching further.

With Lean and Agile we are told to build a MVP, test it with the market, learn and iterate until we find product market fit. Lets say that our latest customer feedback suggests that we nailed it. Is it now time to scale? All in?

The cautionary tale of this book is that our tendency to think that transition between customer segments is continuous is wrong; in fact there’s a chasm in between:

This makes a lot of sense. In the earlier example, we’ve probably nailed the product market fit for early adopters, but not necessarily for the early majority. So we’re going to have to cross the chasm very carefully, make good use of the heat that the converted early adopters will generate for us, but go through a fresh cycle of build-measure-learn to understand the subsequent early majority’s wants and needs.

All of these books are wisdom from our great forerunners. They point out to known, common issues and suggest practical approaches to avoiding those pitfalls – survival guides of sort. It think it would be unwise to take a pass at their lessons. So, fight the urge to “just do it”, and invest some of your time to visit these classics if you haven’t yet.

Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, 1990

My last recommendation is to pick up a book on positive psychology.

I personally more like a clinical approach so I suggested this book, but Tal Ben-Shahar’s motivational style of writing in Happier (2007) is also a comfortable read. (On a side note for Tal Ben-Shahar, I also recommend his 2009 book The Pursuit of Perfect. If you are one of those intense perfectionists, the book could be quite liberating.)

Why positive psychology? The first obvious reason is because it’s good for your organization. We all talk about empowering employees. Reality is that it’s mostly an idealistic notion. To make individual empowerment happen, you need to learn the psychological mechanism behind our positivity, and probably more importantly, negativity.

But the true reason is it’s for you. Startup entrepreneurship is a long journey. Yes perseverance and true grit is important. But you’re going to run out of fuel sooner or later by just being gutsy. Positive psychology is a smarter way to ride out the waves of adversity in your startup life. Use it to your advantage – it’s a choice. (P.S. Choice Theory, anyone?)

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