My day at Leancamp NYC

Giff Constable lean

I spent yesterday attending Leancamp’s New York session and it was an interesting day. It was my first “unconference” and I liked the democratic, “vote with your feet”, “your day is what you make of it” feel.

Photo from Lukas Fittl

Here is an overview of my experience

Session 1… a tricky start

In the first session, a brave soul wanted to discuss how you can bring lean processes to bear in an organization of 60 developers who took requirements and had to get them out the door quickly and with high quality. Unfortunately, I completely disagree with that way of doing business. It is far better to break into smaller, cross-functional, problem-focused teams. Once I realized the focus of the talk, rather than get into an argument with a well-meaning guy, I moved on…

…to an entrepreneur who wanted to talk about how to use lean techniques for selling physical goods (in his case, they were making artisan chocolate). There was good talk about online A/B testing to validate interest, and pre-selling to retail distribution, and I tossed out using Kickstarter to test for demand (and collect money at the same time).

Session 2: applying lean in a 200-person company

I then went to a really great session led by Matt Smith, the Director of New Products at Shutterstock. All of their new product ideas run through a gauntlet that focuses and validates the idea. They get out of the building and regularly observe customer behavior. They work in agile, cross-functional teams. They over-communicate and are completely transparent about where they are, what they are doing, and the qual/quant feedback being received from the market. They have chosen to value priorities over timelines and deadlines (which they can do because all the different functions are brought into the loop, and kept in the loop, right from the start). They choose “usage over perfection”. Good stuff.

Session 3 and 4: business model canvas and getting to hypotheses

I spent some time on the business model canvas, first participating in a fast-paced exercise, and then getting into a discussion over different techniques to identify assumptions/hypotheses.

Photo by Lane Halley

One of my goals was to better understand how and when to use the canvas. Historically, I have viewed the business model canvas as good for thinking holistically, but too heavy. I have seen teams get stuck, either frozen over the blank canvas or creating large lists based on fantasy. On its own, it doesn’t help you understand what is the most important thing to test.

My takeaway, however, was that the canvas is best used if the creation process is time-boxed to 3 or 4 minutes, and that its primary benefit is to let you externalize and share a holistic, visual view of your business. For breaking out and prioritizing assumptions, I prefer versions of the exercise you can find in the back of this presentation (which emerged out of ideas from both Hiten Shah and LUXr).

Session 5: selling the value of lean

A small group gathered to talk about convincing others of the value of being agile and lean, either within a culture or as a services firm trying to sell a different way of working. There are a lot of challenges, not least being that reducing waste and risk isn’t as sexy as high-gloss vision. Farrah Bostic made the salient point when she said (to paraphrase), “if you want people to understand lean, you need to explain it in their own language.” I think it has to start with small wins. The scientific method, the notion of results-oriented thinking, the belief in cross-functional collaboration… these aren’t new ideas but they are still very different from the way most organizations are run today.

Session 6: an experiment on experiments

I ended the day doing an experimental workshop about designing experiments. I asked people to suggest hypotheses they wanted to test for their own business, picking two, and then asking each person to design and share a simple test that could be run online or offline. Their task was, given the hypothesis, to:
– decide who they would test with
– explain how they would get to these people
– describe how the test would actually run
– and ideally choose a goal to hit that would make the test successful.

To be honest, the exercise did not feel particularly successful, partially due to the mixed level of understanding in the room and the tight time frame, which precluded much explanation/teaching. One person pointed out to me that there is confusion between market research and actual experiments. They made the good recommendation that I pull from existing lessons from the scientific community on how to create good experiments in order to explain this stuff.


All in all, it was a fun, interesting day full of discussion and thought and connections. Leancamp is a very different animal from Lean Startup Machine, which is really about execution and learning by doing. Conversely, Leancamp is a great format for engaging in constructive debate, trying out new ideas in lightweight ways, or asking for help from your peers. I hope Nicky and Sal bring it back to NYC again. Armed with this experience, I know I’ll be able to get even more out of the next one.