To me the great innovation of XP was to shift the emphasis of software development away from realising a set of specifications to realising value for the customer and the twelve practices are all about maximising the team’s ability to do so. Its no great insight to recognise that running any kind of business is also about realising value for the customer and about a year after starting my first business I saw that we could usefully apply some of the XP practices to the business management as well as software delivery.
That was a number of years ago but this week I was reminded of the value of applying these practices, especially in the context of a lean startup where the need to discover your product/market fit and develop your business model is directly analogous to the XP team’s ‘discovery’ of the system implementation that achieves the greatest value for their customers and to keep on doing so.
Pairing – In a startup you can’t afford to do everything together; there has to be some division of responsibility and labour. However, the key business management activities – accounting, customer discovery, sales, marketing, product development – are best paired. Working as a pair to produce the monthly financial summary is so much more valuable than reviewing a spreadsheet produced by someone else and everyone on the management team needs to know what is going on in sales and customer discovery. The pair-programming benefits of lack of a single-point-of-failure, cross-pollination of skills, improved quality of output and so on are just as desirable in business management as software development.
Planning Game – However you execute the ‘planning game’ the same principles and outcomes are desirable in business planning as software delivery planning:
- Quick and Easy. If you spend all your time plotting how to take over the world only one thing is certain: you wont.
- Short-term Focussed. You need some idea of where you’re going but the emphasis has to be on what you do in the next few weeks to find out what your customers want and to make those sales.
- Feedback-Driven. Don’t forget, in the relentless drive towards growth, to look at what has been working and what hasn’t.
- Priority-Driven. There is no such thing as “not enough time” only “too much to do“. Make sure you’re doing the right things.
- Visible. Getting the tasks up on the wall and making them visible to everyone is a powerful way of ensuring the priority tasks get delivered, everyone can see when things aren’t happening fast enough or when someone is struggling, and everyone can contribute to ensuring the goals for the business iteration are achieved.
Test Driven – My personal moment of epiphany with XP came when I realised how TDD meant we could spend a lot less time worrying about ‘architecture’ and ‘the design’ (less, not none) and more on saying what we wanted to happen and then making it happen. Setting simple tests for business management tasks like running a marketing campaign or pursuing a particular deal makes it easier to focus on getting things done and to learn from the outcomes.
Continuous Integration – Just as separately developing several streams of code and then trying to bring them together after a long period of time is usually a disaster, having the product people go off and develop the product separate from the sales and marketing people, separate from the people worrying about the money will usually end up with a bust company. Even in startups such as ours where the product people, the sales and marketing people and the people worrying about the money is actually a grand total of two people, the various strands of thinking and work need to be ‘integrated’ on a continuous (daily or weekly) basis.
Sustainable Pace – The first six months of a start-up are the hardest, except for all the months that come after. Which is to say that, if your startup is a success, you will work extremely hard to get it off the ground and then have to step your game up to keep it in the air. If you need to work 20 hours a day, 7 days a week just to get it off the ground, there’s a very good chance that you don’t have a business there. There’s also a very good chance that you’re just trying to do too much. Either way, you will have difficulty sustaining that level of effort when you get to the point the business really needs it.
As an aside, one thing that’s important to recognise about Sustainable Pace in running a startup is that for many people its not just your Sustainable Pace. If you have a partner and/or children, or just friends that you value, what’s the pace that you can sustain and that they can too?
I think its also worth saying that I don’t see XP as being a blueprint for lean start-up management and there are at least two XP practices that I think don’t really work:
Collective [Code] Ownership doesn’t really have an analog in business management. As mentioned earlier, most startups rely on some degree of division of labour. The fact that delivering a new sale or a marketing initiative requires building a whole load of relationships and interacting with people rather than a deterministic machine means that someone else can’t just step in at any point, make a bunch of changes and then roll back if it doesn’t work out. By all means collectively own the business and the objectives but no-one should be able to just go and interfere in someone else’s work at the drop of a hat.
Whole Team – Possibly a controversial one this but, after 13 years of running startup businesses, I’ve come to the conclusion that the running of a business is not a matter for the whole company. Yes objectives should be shared, there should be some form of vision for everyone to buy into, everyone should have a voice that is listened to. But not everyone has the skills and experience to make good judgements about the business direction or about the business’s current position. Especially in startup where things like cashflow, market conditions, and sales prospects are extremely volatile, the management team needs to know how and when to communicate about how the company is doing to everyone in it and how and when to respond to feedback and ideas from outside management.