The Enterprise and Lean Startup: outsourcing app development

Giff Constable design, technology, UI/UX

(aside: I’ve made a promise to myself to try to blog more often. It was tough to find the time over the winter, but I’m going to start with something I meant to write months ago)

Big corporations aspire to innovate with web and mobile products, but their end results are too often bloated or uninspiring. The list of common culprits is long, but I wanted to poke at the situation when an outside firm is hired.

titanicHere is a scenario: “Bigco” approaches several agencies / consulting shops with an RFP. The agencies design a product on paper, wowing the client with creativity and delightful features (necessary to win the project). Bigco gets excited and tries to negotiate the greatest number of features they can jam into their budget. In an attempt to bring discipline and accountability to the project, a milestone-based contract and plan is drawn up.

Unfortunately, *effective* application innovation rarely goes according to plan, but the parties are now locked in. Enter finger-pointing, stage right.

If you look at how innovation is done in well-run startups, it is much more flexible. In “lean startup” culture, you lay out a big vision but you build, test and iterate critical features and assumptions as early as possible. You assume from the start that the initial plan will have major problems, and give yourself the flexibility to iterate as you learn.

Changing the big company model will not be easy. It requires a change in mindset across the sponsoring executive, project lead, and equally important, legal counsel. But the good news is with a “lean” approach, you increase the odds of either 1. creating a more successful product, or 2. learning that a concept is a dud *before* spending too much money.

Here are a few tips:
– Look for a dev partner who cares deeply about the process of testing and iteration, and can give you specific examples from their history (rather than just “lean-washing” their sales pitches)

– Use the “creative/features” from the RFP to evaluate the partner, but not to create a rigid plan.

– Browbeat your lawyers into accepting that flexibility must take precedence over control and strict accountability. Instead, set periodic time markers where progress can be evaluated and the project and/or relationship with the consulting firm can be terminated.

– Test early, but quietly (which probably means a private beta). No matter how excited you are, keep the marketing/PR engine at bay and avoid hype until you are feeling confident in the product.

– Start by building and testing only the most critical, foundational elements. Give yourself time and budget to improve, iterate, or even radically change. You’ll want buy-in on this concept from the sponsoring executive *before* you begin.

– Test with normal people, not just your own employees! (I’m looking at you Google)

– Set internal expectations, both above and below your level in the organization, that all features will be tested and some will not survive the process, not even if it’s the internal team’s darling.

– Have a champion who can communicate strategically, because the project by the very nature of innovation will have ups and downs

Of course, none of this can prevent a catastrophe in event of a restructuring-of-the-month, design-by-committee, design-by-HiPPO*, CYA taking priority over excellence, or a really crappy development partner, but if you can escape those land mines and give this a shot, it should help you create better products and/or prevent high-profile failures.

*Highest Paid Person’s Opinion