What every project manager can learn from The Lean Startup

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On-time and on-budget – it’s the project manager’s mantra. But a study into 50,000 company projects in the US by the Standish Group found that just 16.2% of projects are actually successful in achieving this. For the rest, projects on average overrun by a staggering 189% of the original cost estimate and 222% of the original time estimate.

So what can project managers do to improve these outcomes?

If you know anything about startups, you’ve probably heard of The Lean Startup. Created by Eric Ries in 2008, it’s a methodology to building and managing startups that has become an essential guide to startup founders and entrepreneurs across the globe.

Instead of spending months or years developing a product before taking it to market, Lean is an evidence-based, iterative approach that tests assumptions – such as a need for the product, willingness to pay for it, etc – and proves or disproves those assumptions as early as possible. It advocates the creation of a minimum viable product, or MVP, at each stage of development and testing to see if there is traction or interest to pay for your product (or even to get actual paid orders).

For example, with Wisembly we assumed that corporates required a better way to collaborate with their teams and document outcomes. But rather than building a full-functionality product, we created a ‘bare bones’ solution and tested it through actual events. The platform in its current form is a result of multiple iterations of development, testing and feedback. Using this approach meant we could build a solution that meets actual client needs, rather than create a product based on our assumptions of what those needs are.  

But Lean methodology isn’t just about launching a new product: it’s about creating the most value for the fewest resources, as well as understanding what works – and perhaps more importantly, doesn’t work – and why. It then allows you to build solutions and strategies that are scalable, based on evidence. As such, it’s applicable to any stage of business.

Lean and its application has been written about widely, so this isn’t intended to be a guide to Lean project management. Instead, we’ll be looking at learnings that can and should be applied to any project, whatever project management methodology you use.

Shorten delivery cycles

The biggest risk to the success of a project often comes in the form of dependencies between different project elements. The best way to tackle this is by breaking up the project into smaller elements, and having shorter delivery cycles – project managers familiar with Agile will already be familiar with the idea of working in sprints, although think about applying this on an even more ‘micro’ scale. Doing so will allow you to identify bottlenecks sooner and be more responsive to any changes required in the workflow.    

Focus on value

One of the key things that Lean does is to identify any part of a process that doesn’t add value and eliminate it. This doesn’t mean doing a half-job or cutting corners – it means looking for elements of a project that are superficial to the success of the project and removing them. How many review meetings are needed? How many people should be required for sign-off? How much work needs to go into presentations that are only for internal purposes? Define what your project’s ‘MVP’ is (i.e. what is actually being asked of you) and find a solution to deliver that as fast as possible: you can add polish later if you have the time and budget.

Have a feedback loop

At it’s core, Lean looks to answer the question: ‘How can we quickly learn what works, and get rid of what doesn’t?’ You create an MVP, you test it for a specified amount of time and learn from the results, iterating and improving the process continually. This is called the Build – Measure – Learn feedback loop. In a project management setting, this starts with having a strong workflow breakdown, reviewing it at regular intervals to identify bottlenecks and optimising your workflow.

But following Lean isn’t about creating processes that are fixed. The feedback loop is a continuous cycle which enables you react to changes over time quickly. That’s because it’s less about validating a good idea (because what’s ‘good’ can change) and more about eliminating the bad ones as soon as possible, before their impact is detrimental. So if a change in team structure or other organisational process occurs, you will be able to quickly identify parts of the project cycle that no longer work and update the process.

So what can project managers take away from the Lean movement? Focusing on value first and pulling forward elements crucial to the success of a project can have huge impact on ability to deliver projects within time and budget. But the use of well-documented tests means that obstacles within the project cycle can be quickly identified and, in the longer term, mean that you can create better processes which will help you deliver more successful projects.


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