Beyond lean and agile: Finding a more holistic approach to start-up creation

Start-ups striving to make excellent products need to disrupt the standard start-up methodologies and create a hybrid that works for their goals and their customers, according to a start-up consultant who specialises in product development.


Abie Hadjitarkhani is a partner at Hotel Delta, a San Francisco-based consulting company, and is in Australia for the first international edition of start-up conference Products are Hard, to be held in Melbourne in October.


Hadjitarkhani told StartupSmart that the two leading start-up methodologies – lean and agile – are useful approaches that need to be expanded to create optimal products.


“Both agile and lean are absolutely necessary correctives to the shortcomings of making products,” Hadjitarkhani says, adding most product development thinking has sprung from the waterfall approach from factory manufacturing.


Lean is a customer-driven consultative method which uses as few resources as possible that delivers quickly. Agile is an iterative process of small developments discussed and reviewed by teamwork.


“Agile was a response to the shortcomings of the waterfall process as applied to software, as software is not the same as manufacturing. Similarly, lean was a reminder that customer development is important for start-ups and software companies, for these companies who had got away from their customers that needed to ‘get outside the building’,” he says.


He adds that relying on one corrective approach can diminish innovation and both run the risk of simply becoming a label for inflexible approaches that don’t make full use of your team.


“If you get too lean you can run the risk of losing the innovation and coming up with some totally random new idea. Being exclusively lean really does mean you’re running the risk of coming up with a product not by committee, but by survey,” he says.


“The most interesting products can be those no one knew they wanted, or anticipated. Like Twitter, no one wanted a service to send short messages, no one knew what to do with it and you never would have got there with lean.”


He says the drawback of agile is that it can become “ritual without reason” if the collaboration focus isn’t understood.


“The pitfalls are more about implementation. What we’ve seen is so many groups using the right words, right kind of meetings and workflow charts but you’ve still got the same overly long meetings, excessive documentation and inflexible roadmaps, and end up with products you may not have wanted or your customers don’t,” he says.


“One of the great benefits of agile is that is has given a lot of power back to those who make the stuff, develops and designers have a much bigger voice.”


Hadjitarkhani adds that the shortcomings of lean and agile can be avoided by creating your own human-centric approach to design that takes the customer development insights of lean and the flexible team work of agile.


“As professionals, and especially today when work is so specialised, you need to get so deep in your field and you can lose sight of the big picture,” he says.


Comparing this trend towards specialisation for business managers, developers and designers to academics, he says start-ups need to recognise this trend and step back.


“It’s fine for an academic, but we can’t do that with products intended for general consumers. So we need to situate agile and lean in a larger context.”


For founders and developers building a start-up, Hadjitarkhani says a lot of good development comes down to self-control and empathy.


“If I’m an engineer or designer and have a great idea, I’m going to want to put it in. That’s natural, but that may not be the best combination or addition to the product. That call is your job. Step back and remember the person on the other end using this thing for the first time,” he says.


“You need to step right out of it, and remember no one’s goal is to use your product. They want to get something done. Does your product do that in the best, most efficient way possible?”


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