The Unexpected Entrepreneur: Stories From The Enterprise

MarilynThanks to Lean Startup Co. training program faculty member, Marilyn Gorman, for contributing this piece. If your company would benefit from her expertise in bringing the Lean Startup practice to large complex organizations, drop us a line at [email protected]

You hear it all the time… entrepreneurs are everywhere. It sounds great, but back in 2012, it didn’t seem to have much relationship to the work I was doing in the most execution-oriented company in the world – GE. Their reputation in Six Sigma management and their quest for perfection seemed pretty intimidating to me in my role as a Learning & Development manager and executive coach.

But in 2012, something unexpected happened. In the midst of a restructure in the learning organization, I was asked to manage a new program called FastWorks, based on something called Lean Startup. There was not much information about  the context other than some diverse project teams were coming to GE’s corporate leadership campus, Crotonville, to spend time working with Eric Ries, an author who had impressed our Chairman and our Chief Marketing Officer. And nothing was the same for me after that.

The opportunities I had to learn and grow – developing and launching enterprise-wide learning materials for Lean Startup/FastWorks, working with senior leaders to enable a company-wide culture change, helping to build a company-wide cohort of FastWorks project coaches, coaching GE’s largest internal Lean Startup project with 200,000+ internal customers – provided the perspective to bring an entrepreneurial mindset to the work I did for GE, and to my work now as a consultant to companies that are facing unimagined disruption.

If you think this sounds too daunting for your organization, let me reassure you that I am not an engineer, that I knew nothing about the Lean Startup approach, and that my reputation inside GE was largely based on my ability to execute on deliverables. Having spent a great deal of my working life working with engineers, I knew how comforting a good process can be!  But what made my experience different was the need apply the Lean Startup approach to building a Lean Startup culture, adopting a Build, Measure Learn framework in an enterprise where the F-bomb was actually the word ‘failure’.

So, having left GE 2 months ago, what are the lessons I’m taking with me?

Start with the mindset…..

‘It takes a leap, not a step.’ That’s how we described the transition to a new performance development approach in GE, and it sums up what it also takes to adopt a Lean Startup way of working. Testing less than perfect solutions (remember the ‘minimum’ in MVP) is not something that can be done by playing it safe, and all too often the tendency is to over-engineer and slow things down because it feels more comfortable.  

I learned early that when an engineer tells you something can’t be designed, that’s just the first step in in their thought process. Engineers love the challenge of doing something that’s never been done before, which is why many Lean Startup practitioners are challenged by transitioning from ‘Can we build it?’ to ‘Should we build it?’  

Changing the mindset means changing the question – from ‘Should we built it?’ to ‘Do we really know what the problem is?’ All too often, whether the functional group is in Engineering, Sales or Human Resources, we make assumptions about our customers and their needs. Corporate success is often based on our presumed ability to ‘know our customers’. Lean Startup shines a brighter light on that knowledge, requiring us to get out of the office and actually talk to people, observe behaviors and test ideas – and accept that as part of the execution-process.

It take an intense curiosity…..

The most successful Lean Startup practitioners I’ve worked with have an intense curiosity to learn: about their customers, about pain points and needs, about a vision of success. They understand that going several levels deep in asking probing questions can help the customer focus and define the outcomes they really want. Yet who could imagine that the hardest thing to do is to teach people to ask questions instead of giving advice or jumping to quick solutions.

I have taught coaching skills to managers and leaders all around the world, and the most consistent challenge is to move them from ‘telling’ to ‘asking’. Expertise typically becomes visible and credible by solving problems, not by asking questions. But in a Lean Startup world where we need to stop wasting time, asking the right questions can help you go faster by leading you to solve for the right problems. Iteration with continued improvements is good… re-work because of poor focus and direction is bad!

Have courage…….

Courage in the Lean Startup world can take many forms. It might be a willingness to push back against something you know won’t work, and offering an alternative approach. It could be sharing truths with a more senior and risk-averse stakeholder, saying what others are thinking but will not say. Perhaps you’ll challenge vanity metrics and make the case for learning measures based on customer behaviors. All of these can seem daunting in an enterprise culture where learning through failure is not typically part of the story.

Dilbert says “Change is hard… go first!” If entrepreneurship is a management discipline for dealing with uncertainty and disruption, then facing into the change and being willing to challenge everything can lead to a different and more meaningful kind of outcome.

So here’s my lesson: be patient, be persistent and be willing to take those risks. Celebrate the small wins along the way that when added together create a picture of success. As an entrepreneur, that will be your legacy of influence far beyond anything you could have imagined.

What It Takes To Transform…..

Enterprise-wide change can be challenging, especially if the right elements are not in place. Here are some things to consider:

Be Realistic: In launching FastWorks into GE, we quickly learned that culturally-embedded behaviors needed to change and that accountability required a new set of systems and structures. Be willing to evaluate and question your own cultural ‘norms’ and consider how they might need to change to support a new way of working.

Be Resilient: Keep the focus on what you learn and not on how you fail – and you will fail! Remember that there may be many people who will question the need for a new mindset, and who feel more comfortable with the ‘old’ way of working. Take a Lean Startup approach to change – testing small and fast, learning quickly and making directional changes as needed.

Be Ready: Be thoughtful about how you launch a Lean Startup initiative. Look for projects/functions/businesses where you have strong advocacy, a willingness to explore a new way of thinking and working, and the opportunity to challenge old and current assumptions. Be clear and consistent on how you will communicate the need and the value of a Lean Startup approach and be prepared to over-communicate. Finally, make sure you have the right infrastructure (training plan, project leads and coaches, funding model, etc) in place to create the environment where the Lean Startup teams can move at speed.

Lean Startup Co. offers live and virtual training and consulting to help large complex organizations in all sectors learn to build products and services using the startup mindset. To reach Marilyn or learn more, visit us here or email [email protected]

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