Why The Government is Isn’t a Bigger Version of a Startup

This article previously appeared in War On The Rocks

There was a time when much of U.S. academia was engaged in weapon systems research for the Defense Department and intelligence community. Some of the best and brightest wanted to work for defense contractors or corporate research and development labs. And the best startups spun out of Stanford were building components for weapon systems.

Indeed, Silicon Valley was born as a center for weapon systems development and its software and silicon helped end the Cold War.

During World War II the United States did something its adversaries did not; it enlisted professors and graduate students as civilians in 105 colleges and universities to build advanced weapon systems — nuclear weapons, radar, etc. After World War II, the military-academic relationship that was so effective against Germany and Japan mobilized to face the Soviet threat and almost every research university (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Caltech, Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Cornell, University of Chicago, and many others) continued to engage in weapon systems research during the Cold War.

Unique among them was Stanford, which provost Fred Terman (the father of American electronic warfare and electronic intelligence in World War II)) built as a center of excellence in microwaves and electronics. Rather than focus the university inward on research, Terman took the radical step of encouraging Stanford professors and graduate students to start companies applying engineering to pressing military problems. The companies they started in the 1950s and 60s were based on Stanford’s defense contacts and contracts — microwave components, electronic warfare, and intelligence systems, and then the first wave of semiconductor companies. As there was no venture capital, these early startups were funded by early sales to weapon systems prime contractors and subcontractors.

But this quarter-century relationship between the military and universities ended with a bang in 1969. In the middle of the Vietnam War, student riots protesting military research forced the end of classified work on most college campuses. One of the unintended consequences was that many of the academics went off to found a wave of startups selling their technology to the military. For example, at Stanford after student riots in April 1969 shut down the Applied Electronics Laboratory, James de Broekert ,who was building electronic intelligence satellites, left the university and co-founded three Silicon Valley military intelligence companies: Argo Systems, Signal Science, and Advent Systems.

Within a decade, the rise of venture capital in Silicon Valley enabled startups to find commercial customers rather than military ones. And from then on, innovation in semiconductors, supercomputers, and software would be driven by startups, not the government.

After 9/11, with the memories of the fall of the twin towers, this ecosystem of military, academic, corporate, and startup actors coalesced for the decade as U.S. companies felt a patriotic duty to help their country defeat a common enemy.

But the 2013 Snowden revelations damaged that tenuous relationship yet again. In hindsight the damage wasn’t the result of what the United States was doing, but over the Pentagon’s inability and unwillingness to own up to why it was doing it: After the intelligence failure of 9/11, security agencies overcompensated by widespread, warrantless datamining as well as electronic and telephonic surveillance, including on U.S. persons.

Without a clear explanation of why this had been done, startups, which were already being funded by ever-increasing pools of venture capital, abandoned cooperation with the Defense Department and focused on high returns on social media and commercial applications. The commercial applications of big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, drones, robotics, cyber, quantum computing, and biotechnology are the core foundations on which the Pentagon needs to build the weapons of the 21st century. Yet the development of these advanced technologies is now being driven by commercial interests, not the Defense Department.

America’s adversaries understand this. China is tightly integrating its defense establishment with startups, companies, and academia in “military-civilian fusion.” Russia, Iran, and North Korea have also fused those activities.

Reconstituting the tightly connected military-academic-commercial ecosystem that the Defense Department once had requires the Pentagon to relearn skills it once had, overcoming decades of avoiding the political and social issues of what it takes to rally the nation against a common threat. Today, every government agency, service branch, and combatant command is adopting innovation activities (hackathons, design thinking classes, innovation workshops, et al.) to tap into the creativity of a new generation of soldier — born into a digital world, comfortable with technology, and willing to improve and enhance America’s ability to fight and win.

The Government Can’t Act Like a Startup
However, those activities are not enough. The government isn’t a bigger version of a startup and can’t act like a startup does. Innovation activities in government agencies most often result in innovation theater. While these activities shape and build culture, they don’t win wars, and rarely deliver shippable or deployable products.

Startups dream in years, plan in months, evaluate in weeks, and ship in days. At times this means startups operate at speeds so fast they appear to be a blur to government agencies. It’s not that these companies are smarter than Defense Department employees, but they operate with different philosophies, different product development methodologies, and with different constraints.

The table below summarizes a few of the salient differences. Some of the most important are the least obvious. Startups can do anything. They can break the law and apologize later (as Uber, Airbnb, and Tesla did), but a government official taking the same type of risks can go to jail.

Urgency and risk-taking in a startup are integral parts of the culture, felt by 100 percent of early-stage employees. The urgency servicemembers feel on the battlefield is felt by few in government agencies, and most often there are negative incentives for risk-taking. In a startup cluster (Silicon Valley, Beijing, Tel Aviv) a failed entrepreneur is known as “experienced.” In a government agency, they’re likely known as being out of a job.

Innovation at speed is a given at a startup but the exception in a government agency. Advances in commercial technologies are occurring at no less than two, and up to ten, times the speed of comparable Pentagon-developed or acquired systems. Some of the speed is simply due to development methodologies. Waterfall development is still used by most defense contractors, resulting in updates of systems measured in years. With Agile development, used by all startups, updates can occur in weeks or sometimes days, or even hours. Some of the speed differences are because commercial companies and academics face Darwinian competitive pressures for revenue or recognition. These force rapid technical advances in fields such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, and analytics.

The very definition of a contractor implies a contract. And a government contract starts with fixed requirements that only change with contract modifications. That makes sense when the problem and solution are known. But when they are unknown the traditional methods of contracting fail. Startups recognize that when new circumstances arise, they can pivot — make substantive changes to their products without any new contracts.Existing contractors have learned how to master the arcane defense acquisition system and live with the slow decision-making and payment processes. In some agencies, large contractors seem to “own” sections, offices, organizations, or programs. Often former government employees, at the level of GS-15 and below, will leave as staffers and return the next day working for large Beltway contractors, working or managing the same programs they previously worked. This relationship between government agency and contractor further impedes and often rejects innovation or disruption. Officers know they will likely lose their post-retirement future if they seek radical change.

This symbiotic relationship between government agencies and incumbent contractors is also a barrier to new entrants, in particular to startups with the very technologies the Department of Defense now needs. While the Pentagon has made efforts to reform the process (Other Transaction Authorities, TechFAR, mid-tier contracting, accelerators…) there is still a fundamental misunderstanding of what financial incentives would attract the best and brightest investors to guide their companies to work with the Defense Department. There are no incentives for prime contractors to invest in new ventures and none to acquire new ventures. And there is no plan for how to rapidly insert and deploy startup technologies into weapon systems.

So, the question is: What’s next? How do leaders in government think about and organize innovation in a way that makes a difference?

The answer is that, yes, government agencies need to be more agile. And yes, they need to fix the systemic internal issues that hinder their own innovators’ contributions. But, in addition, what they are missing is a comprehensive plan to build a 21st-century defense innovation ecosystem — reintegrating the military, academia, and private enterprise. To harness both their own internal innovators and this new external ecosystem the Defense Department needs what I call an innovation doctrine to organize their efforts to rapidly access and mobilize talent and technology. The Pentagon can build a mindset, culture, and process to fix this. This doctrine would let the country again capture the untapped power and passion of the best and brightest to leapfrog adversaries and win wars.

How to Convince Investors You’re the Future not the Past

This article previously appeared in VentureBeat.

I just had a coffee with Mei and Bill, two passionate students who are on fire about their new startup idea. It’s past the “napkin-sketch” stage with a rough minimum viable product and about 100 users.

I thought they had a great insight about an application space others had previously tried to crack.

But they needed to convince investors that they are Facebook not Friendster.

Here’s what I suggested they do:


Mei and Bill are building a better version of an on-demand help service like TaskRabbit. And “better” didn’t do it justice. They have a unique insight about the nature of interactions between customers and service providers I’ve never heard before. If they are correct, they’ve found a unique combination of customers and value proposition that made these customers want to immediately pay and repeatably engage. The early indication from their minimum viable product is that they found early signs of product/market fit. Even more interesting, their product might have a much higher initial order size and much greater lifetime value than existing on-demand help services.

All good. So what was the problem?

Their immediate problem was that investors, even seed investors, were convinced that the market segment Mei and Bill wanted to enter was littered by failures. And as soon as they described the space, investors rolled their eyes and passed.

Creative Destruction Meets Risk Capital
Like all entrepreneurs with an idea burning bright, Mei and Bill thought they were the first to invent water, air and fire.

When you’re young you believe that the world sprang into existence yesterday (or at least when you started college) and anything older than three years ago is ancient history. Ignorance of the past and disdain of the status quo are part of how innovation happens. As companies get larger and individuals get older, most get trapped in dogma and aversion to risk. Meanwhile cultural taste, technology and platforms evolve, and new things are possible that might not have been just years ago. The cycle of creative destruction of the old being replaced by the new continues, fueled by angel and venture capital.

And therein lies the catch – investors have longer memories of failures than new entrepreneurs. When you’re describing the future, most of them are remembering the past.

To See the Future Understand the Past
So Mei and Bill were facing two problems. The first was obvious; they needed to know how investors viewed their space. Second, they needed to know how to make it clear that the world had changed and that they had figured out how to solve the problems that cratered previous entrants. To do so they needed to learn six things:

  1. What companies in their space came before them?
  2. Why did those fail?
  3. Which investors got burned?
  4. How has the market/technology/customers evolved since then?
  5. What’s Mei and Bill’s unique insight that makes their startup different?
  6. Who else is playing in their space or adjacent markets? And how could they make that a strength, not a weakness?

What companies in their market came before them? And why did those fail? Which investors got burned?
Mei and Bill needed to understand the past so they could fund the future. I suggested they do some research by reading founders’ and investors’ public post-mortems of what went wrong. CBInsights has a collection of 300+ startup failure post-mortems, and Crunchbase has a startup failure database. Both of these are required reading. And others exist.

Finding these lists is just the beginning. Since Mei and Bill were networking, there would be a lot to learn if they talked to the founders of startups that built products similar to theirs, but didn’t make it. I pointed out you can get these meetings if you tell them what you’re trying to build and let them know you’d like to get smarter from them. You’d be surprised how many founders will agree to chat. (At least those who’ve recovered.) Ask them, “What did they wish they knew when they started? What did they learn? What would they do differently?” And most importantly, “Did your investors understand the space? Did they help trying to find scale? Would you take money from them again?”

Out of those same lists (CBInsights, Crunchbase, etc.) keep a list of the investors who lost money on those deals. Not to avoid them, but to call on them when you’ve learned why you won’t make the same mistakes or have a better insight. Getting introduced as a team who solved a problem that they’re familiar with may not get you funded, but if you pique their interest you will get a post-doc of the market and space as it existed. Your job is to process that information and understand what’s changed/what you will do differently to not fall victim to the same fate.

How has the market/technology/customers evolved? What’s your unique insight? Who else is playing in their space or adjacent markets?
Once you have a grasp of the past you can realize it’s just a preamble to the present.

Put together a single slide that graphically shows the evolution of the space you’re in. You’re trying to show what’s changed to make your startup economically viable today. What’s changed? Platform changes (web to mobile), faster technology (3G to 4G to 5G), commoditization of tech (Cloud). Has consumer behavior changed? Emergence of the sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb), brands no longer important (Dollar Shave Club)?  All these examples ought to point out that the world (technology and market) is a different place now – and the opportunity is even bigger.

Finally, given what you’ve learned about the past, what’s your insight about the future? What do all these changes mean? What are the core hypotheses of why this is a potentially huge business going forward?

Understanding how the space has evolved, gets you from past to present. Understanding competitors and adjacent players allows you to map today to tomorrow.

When I asked Mei and Bill if they could draw the direct competitors and adjacent players, they pulled out a trusty X-Y competitive analysis chart which made me want to shoot every management consulting firm that ever existed. The chart not only didn’t say anything useful, it gave Mei and Bill false comfort that they actually understood anything about the space around them.

Instead I suggested they start with a Petal Diagram. Rather than focus on just two dimensions of competition, this allows you to show all the adjacent market segments like leaves in a petal.

You label each leaf with the names of the market spaces and the names of the companies that are representative players in these adjacent markets. You use this chart to articulate your first hypotheses of what customers segments you’re targeting.

Then follow up the Petal Diagram with another slide that says, here’s our unique insight that’s been validated by customer discovery. And why now is the time to seize the opportunity.

If you’re talking to the right investors, this approach can generate a high-bandwidth conversation because you’ve given them an opportunity to critique your analysis of failure, risk, insight and opportunity.

It was a lot of information for a coffee and I thought I may have overwhelmed Mei and Bill with a fire hose of opinions. But the next day I got an email that said, “We’re on it. We have the first two interviews with ex-founders in our space scheduled.”

Lessons Learned

  • If you’re in a market that previously ate up lots of investor dollars, remember:
    • Investors have longer memories of failures than new entrepreneurs
    • When you’re describing the future, most of them are remembering the past
  • Remove those obstacles by educating yourself and investors about why the time is now
  • Carpe diem – Seize the day

Why Companies and Government Do “Innovation Theater” Instead of Actual Innovation

This article previously appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

The type of disruption most companies and government agencies are facing is a once-in-every-few-centuries event. Disruption today is more than just changes in technology, or channel, or competitors – it’s all of them, all at once. And these forces are completely reshaping both commerce and defense.

Today, as large organizations are facing continuous disruption, they’ve recognized that their existing strategy and organizational structures aren’t nimble enough to access and mobilize the innovative talent and technology they need to meet these challenges. These organizations know they need to change but often the result has been a form of organizational Whack-A-Mole– a futile attempt at trying to swat every problem as they pop-up without understanding their root cause.

Ultimately, companies and government agencies need to stop doing this or they will fail.

We can build a mindset, culture and process to fix this – what I call an Innovation Doctrine. But first we need to step back and recognize one of the problems.


I just spent a few days with a large organization with a great history, who like most of their peers is dealing with new and rapidly evolving external threats. However, their biggest obstacle is internal. What had previously been a strength – their great management processes – now holds back their ability to respond to new challenges.

Companies Run on Process
Once upon a time every great organization was a scrappy startup willing to take risks – new ideas, new methods, new customers, targets, and mission. If they were a commercial company, they figured out product/market fit; or if a government organization, it focused on solution/mission fit. Over time as these organizations got large, they built process. By process I mean all the tools that allow companies and government to scale repeatable execution. HR processes, legal processes, financial processes, acquisition and contracting processes, security processes, product development and management processes, and types of organizational forms etc. All of these are great strategies and tools that business schools build, and consulting firms help implement.

Process is great when you live in a world where both the problem and solution are known. Process helps ensure that you can deliver solutions that scale without breaking other parts of the organization.

These processes reduce risk to an overall organization, but each layer of process reduces the ability to be agile and lean and – most importantly – responsive to new opportunities and threats.

Process Versus Product
As companies and government agencies get larger, they start to value the importance of “process” over the “product.” And by product, I mean the creation of new hardware, services, software, tools, operations, tradecraft, etc.  People who manage processes are not the same people as those who create product. Product people are often messy, hate paperwork and prefer to spend their time creating stuff rather than documenting it. Over time as organizations grow, they become risk averse. The process people dominate management, and the product people end up reporting to them.

If the company is large enough it will become a “rent-seeker” and look to the government and regulators as their first line of defense against innovative competition. They’ll use government regulation and lawsuits to keep out new entrants with more innovative business models.

The result of monopolist behavior is that innovation in that sector dies – until technology/consumer behavior passes them by.    By then the company has lost the ability to compete as an innovator.

In government agencies process versus product has gone further. Many agencies outsource product development to private contractors, leaving the government with mostly process people – who write requirements, and oversee acquisition, program management, and contracts.

However, when the government is faced with new adversaries, new threats, or new problems, both the internal process people as well as the external contractors are loath to obsolete their own systems and develop radically new solutions. For the contractors, anything new offers the real risk of losing a lucrative existing stream of revenue. For the process people, the status quo is a known and comfortable space and failure and risk-taking is considered career retarding. Metrics are used to manage process rather than creation of new capabilities, outcomes and speed to deployment. And if the contract and contractor are large enough, they put their thumb on the scale and use the political process and lobbying to maintain the status quo.

The result is that legacy systems live on as an albatross and an impediment to making the country safer and more secure.

Organizational and Innovation Theater
A competitive environment should drive a company/government agency into new forms of organization that can rapidly respond to these new threats. Instead, most organizations look to create even more process. This typically plays out in three ways:

  1. Often the first plan from leadership for innovation is hiring management consultants who bring out their 20th-century playbook. The consultants reorganize the company (surprise!), often from a functional organization into a matrixed organization. The result is organizational theater. The reorg keeps everyone busy for a year, perhaps provides new focus on new regions or targets, but in the end is an inadequate response to the need for rapid innovation for product.
  2. At the same time, companies and government agencies typically adopt innovation activities (hackathons, design thinking classes, innovation workshops, et al.) that result in innovation theater. While these activities shape, and build culture, but they don’t win wars, and they rarely deliver shippable/deployable product.
  3. Finally, companies and government agencies have realized that the processes and metrics they put in place to optimize execution (Procurement, Personnel, Security, Legal, etc.) are obstacles for innovation. Efforts to reform and recast these are well meaning, but without an overall innovation strategy it’s like building sandcastles on the beach. The result is process theater.

For most large organizations these reorgs, activities and reforms don’t increase revenue, profit or market share for companies, nor does it keep our government agencies ahead of our adversaries. One can generously describe them as innovation dead ends.

Between a Rock and A Hard Place
Today, companies and government agencies are not able to access and mobilize the innovative talent and technology they need to meet these challenges. The very processes that made them successful impede them.

Organizational redesign, innovation activities, and process reform need to be part of an overall plan.

In sum, large organizations lack shared beliefs, validated principles, tactics, techniques, procedures, organization, budget, etc. to explain how and where innovation will be applied and its relationship to the rapid delivery of new product.

We can build a mindset, culture and process to fix this.

More in future posts about Innovation Doctrine.

Lessons Learned

  • As companies and agencies get larger, they start to value the importance of process over the “content.”
  • When disruption happens, no process or process manager in the world is going to save your company/or government agency
    • It’s going to take those “product” creators
    • But they have no organization, authority, budget or resources
  • We can build a mindset, culture and process to fix this.
    • A shared set of beliefs and principles of how and where innovation will be used and rapidly delivered
  • Innovation Doctrine

Who Ever Thought? The Lean Educators Summit

It’s been almost a decade since we first started teaching the Lean Methodology. It’s remade entrepreneurship education, startup practice and innovation in companies and the government. But in all that time, we haven’t gotten a large group of educators together to talk about what it’s been like to teach Lean or the impact it’s had in their classrooms and beyond. It dawned on us that with 10 years of Lessons Learned to explore, now would be a good time.

So, for the first time ever, we’re getting all educators from all these groups together for a “share best practices” summit at my ranch – December 4th – 5th.


100,000 students, one class at a time
A few months ago with the folks at VentureWell, the non-profit that puts on the Lean LaunchPad Educator classes  mentioned, “You know we’ve trained over 800 educators at hundreds of colleges and universities around the world to teach your class…” Say what???

It still seems like yesterday that Ann Miura-Ko and I were creating a new class – the Lean LaunchPad at Stanford to teach students an alternative to how to write a business plan.

If you can’t see the video click here

I quickly did the math. 800 educators – times 15 or so students per year – times almost ten years. Wow. It’s possible that 100,000 students have gone through some form of the class.

Add that to the 5,000 or more of our nation’s best science researchers who’ve gotten out the building (in this case their labs) who’ve gone through the National Science Foundation I-Corps program, (designed to help turn our country’s best academic research into companies), or the I-Corps @ the National Institute of Health or I-Corps @ the Department of Energy. And then add another 5,000 more who’ve gone through a version of I-Corps inside the Department of Defense.

It made me think about the variants of the class we’ve created. We started Hacking for Defense and Diplomacy almost four years ago. Hacking for Defense is now supported by the National Security Innovation Network and has put hundreds of students in 24 universities through the program. Hacking for Cities and Hacking for Non-profits have followed at U.C. Berkeley. Hacking for Oceans is coming next.

Yet none of these instructors across these disciplines have met. Or shared what they’ve learned.

So lets’ do it.

Educators Sharing Best Practices
On December 4th-5th, Jerry Engel, Pete Newell and I are hosting an event at the ranch for a select group of educators that have lead the Lean Innovation movement.

We’re going to cover:

  • The effectiveness of our programs [including I-Corps and Hacking for Defense]: What we have learned so far from the data and how to make it better
  • Customer Discovery and Lean Innovation in Academic Settings vs Non-Academic Settings such as incubators and accelerators
  • Tech Commercialization: innovators vs. entrepreneurs –  motivating scientists and engineers
  • Lean Innovation in the Enterprise, Not-for-Profit and Government – what’s different
  • International: Success and Challenges of Lean Innovation and Customer Discovery in  Europe and Asia [and South America? Australia?]
  • What’s next for Lean and entrepreneurial education
  • and much more…

Lessons Learned:

  • I’m hosting the Summit of Lean Innovation Educators at my ranch in December.
  • We’re bringing together a group to capture best practices and define a vision for what lies ahead.
  • Stay tuned for what we learn
  • And if you think you should be here, click here and let us know why

Mission Model Canvas – the Videos

In 2016 Pete Newell, Alexander Osterwalder and I developed the Mission Model Canvas for our Hacking for Defense Class.  We’ve now created a series of videos that explain how this variant of the Business Model Canvas works – 11 videos totaling 17 minutes.

Thanks to BMNT and the National Security Innovation Network for support of this project.

When Pete Newell, Joe Felter and I built the Hacking for Defense class we modeled the syllabus after my earlier Lean LaunchPad and NSF I-Corps classes. Both classes used Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas to frame the hypotheses to be tested.

If you can’t see the business model canvas video click here

However, using the business model canvas inside the Dept of Defense was problematical. Teams there pointed out that the standard business model canvas didn’t fit their problem sets. For example, in the Dept of Defense you don’t measure progress by measuring revenue. Instead you mobilize resources and a budget to solve a particular problem and create value for a set of beneficiaries (customers, support organizations, warfighters, Congress, the country, etc.)

Therefore, the business model canvas box labeled Revenue Streams doesn’t make sense. The defense and intelligence community are mission-driven organizations so there is no revenue to measure. The first step in building a canvas that worked for these organizations was to change the Revenue Stream box to one that would provide a way to measure success.

We called this alternative- Mission Achievement/Success.

Now the Mission Model Canvas just needed four more tweaks.

  • Customer Segments was changed to Beneficiaries
  • Cost Structure was changed to Mission Cost/Budget
  • Channel was changed to Deployment
  • Customer Relationships was changed to Buy-in/Support

Read the full blog post on the development and use of the Mission Model Canvas here.

And watch the Mission Model Canvas videos below.

If you can’t see the Introduction to the Mission Model Canvas video click here

If you can’t see the Beneficiaries and Stakeholders video click here

If you can’t see the Value Proposition video click here

If you can’t see the Buy-In video click here

If you can’t see the Deployment video click here

If you can’t see the Mission Achievement video click here

If you can’t see the Key Activities video click here

If you can’t see the Key Resources video click here

If you can’t see the Key Partners video click here

If you can’t see the Mission Budget video click here

If you can’t see the Key Concepts video click here

You can find the entire video series collected here

AgileFall – When Waterfall Sneaks Back Into Agile


This article previously appeared in the Harvard Business Review

AgileFall is an ironic term for program management where you try to be agile and lean, but you keep using waterfall development techniques. It often produces a result that’s like combining a floor wax and dessert topping.

I just sat through my a project management meeting where I saw AgileFall happen first-hand. The good news is that a few tweaks in process got us back on track.


I just spent half a day with Henrich, the head of product of a Fortune 10 company. We’re helping them convert one of the critical product lines inside an existing division from a traditional waterfall project management process into Lean.

Henrich is smart, innovative and motivated. His company is facing disruption from new competitors. He realized that traditional Waterfall development wasn’t appropriate when the problem and solution had many unknowns.a

This product line has 15 project managers overseeing 60 projects. Over the last few months we’ve helped him inject the basic tenets of Lean into these projects. All are Horizon 1 or 2 projects – creating new features for existing products targeting existing customers or repurposing existing products, tools, or techniques to new customers. Teams are now creating minimum viable products (MVPs), getting out of the building to actually talk with users and stakeholders, and have permission to pivot, etc.  All good Lean basics.

AgileFall in Real Life
But in our latest meeting I realized Heinrich was still managing his project managers using a Waterfall process. Teams only checked in – wait for it – every three months in a formal schedule review. I listened as Henrich mentioned that the teams complained about the volume of  paperwork he makes them fill out for these quarterly reviews. And he was unhappy with the quality of the reports because he felt most teams wrote the reports the night before the review. How, he asked, could he get even more measures of performance and timely reporting from the project managers?

At first glance I thought, what could be bad about more data? Isn’t that what we want – evidence-based decisions? I was about to get sucked down the seductive path of suggesting even more measures of effectiveness when I realized Henrich still had a process where success was measured by reports, not outcomes. It was the same reporting process used to measure projects that used linear, step-by-step Waterfall.

(To be fair to Henrich, his product team is a Lean island in a company where Waterfall still dominates. While his groups has changed the mindset and cadence of the organization, the folks he reports up to don’t yet get Agile/Lean learning and outcomes. They just want to see the paperwork.)

In both managing down and up we needed a very different project management mindset.

Lean Project Management Philosophy
So our discussion was fun. As the conversation progressed, we agreed about the ways to manage projects using a few operating principles of Lean/Agile project management (without ever mentioning the words Lean or Agile.)

  1. It was the individuals who were creating the value (finding solution/mission ft) not the processes and reports
  2. However, the process and reports were still essential to management above him.
  3. Having the teams build incremental and iterative MVPs was more important than obsessing about early documentation/reporting
  4. Allow teams to pivot to what they learned in customer discovery rather than blindly follow a plan they sold you on day one
  5. Progress to outcomes (solution/mission ft) is non-linear and not all teams progress at the same rate

Pivoting the Process
With not too much convincing, Henrich agreed that rather than quarterly reviews, the leadership team would to talk to 4-5 project managers every week, looking at 16-20 projects. This meant the interaction cycle – while still long – would go from the current three months to at least once a month.

More importantly we decided that he would focus these conversations on outcomes rather than reports. There would be more verbal communication and a lot less paper. The reviews would be about frequent delivery, incremental development and how leadership could remove obstacles. And Henrich’s team would continue to share progress reporting across the teams so they could learn from each other.

In sum, the radical idea for Henrich was tha this role was not to push the paperwork down. It was to push an outcome orientation down, and then translate its progress back up the chain. While this was great for the teams, it put the onus on Henrich to report progress back up to his leadership in a way they wanted to see it.

I knew the lightbulb had fully gone on when near the end of the meeting Henrich asked his team, “Going forward, who are the right team members to manage a Lean process versus a Waterfall?” And I smiled when they concluded that Lean could be managed by fewer people who could operate in a chaotic learning environment, versus a process-driven, execution one.

I can’t wait for the next meeting.

Lessons Learned

  • AgileFall is a seductive trap – using some Lean processes but retaining the onerous parts of Waterfall
  • The goal of leadership in Lean product management is not to push the paperwork down. It’s to push an outcome orientation down and translate its progress back up the chain

U.C. Santa Cruz Commencement Speech – 2019

I was honored to give the commencement speech at the University of California Santa Cruz, right down the road from the ranch. Rather than my usual talks about innovation and entrepreneurship I shared a few lessons learned after serving seven years as a public official on the California Coastal Commission. I told four stories about the conflict between money and power versus the common good.

I was invited to give the talk by Professor Sue Carter, now the provost of the college. In 2011 Professor Carter was in the first National Science Foundation I-Corps class. Last year, she testified in front of Congress about the program.

Bay Nature, the San Francisco regional nature magazine, did a great job in capturing the context of my commencement speech in this article.  Worth a read first, before you read below.

The speech is below.

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Congratulations to the graduates!

The talk starts at 27:00

If you can’t see the video click here

Today while we celebrate your college degree, it represents just the end of one part of your life and the beginning of the next.

You’ve just spent the last four years putting passion, energy and conviction into your friendships, politics, social justice, partying and – every once in a while – your classes.

Now your time in the classroom is over and your real education is about to begin.  Many of you will find yourselves colliding with a world driven – less by ideas, knowledge and the pursuit of truth – and more by money – ideology – and power.

So today, I’m going to offer you a glimpse of how the world outside of this esteemed institution really works. And offer some tips on how to be effective change agents for repairing the world.

It’s altogether fitting and proper that in a college named after Rachel Carson, to share four short stories of what happened when truth and justice faced money and power – for the seven years I served as a public official on the California Coastal Commission. The agency that regulates land use on all 1100 miles of the California Coast.

My first story is that the Smartest person in the room is almost never the most effective.

One of things I loved about being a coastal commissioner was how much I learned. Coming out of Silicon Valley and the tech world, I was a complete novice on how policy gets made. So, I had to read the Coastal Act, the Coastal Regulations, and enough law to understand the positions our staff took and what the applicants were contending. And each month I’d have to read through 100 staff reports to figure out how to vote. Deciding between the applicants, their lobbyists, the environmental community, the staff, the coastal act and the law.

Meanwhile, while I was reading everything, I noticed that one of the other commissioners was reading nothing, not the staff reports, not the coastal act, not the law.  In fact, all he could do was count to seven.

And that ability to count to seven made him the most effective commissioner.

Why? Because out of 12 commissioners, seven is the number needed to win a majority in a vote.

While I was the master of the facts and data, he was calling in favors, cajoling others, and building a coalition to get the majority of commissioners to see the world his way.

So, my first lesson is – You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room to be the most effective. Being effective means not just mastering the facts but – figuring out how to move your agenda forward.

My second story is about the power of Misdirection over the truth

Magicians use misdirection all the time: they sweep off their top-hat, you fixate on it, and all of a sudden, their assistant standing next to them disappears.

I got to watch a magic act unfold before my eyes when real estate developers made eight office buildings totaling ¼ million square feet — twice the size of a Wal-Mart — disappear. How?

The developers wanted to build office buildings in an area zoned for farmland. Traffic from this huge project would have filled local roads not designed for this density and would impact the public’s access to the beach. Given that on the face of it, this project violated all kinds of laws, how did these developers make it disappear – andget unanimous approval from the county’s Board of Supervisors?

Their solution was brilliant – and evil. They proposed that after building these eight office buildings, they would build a housing facility for developmentally disabled adults. They convinced the dedicated, deserving and passionate parents of this group that this project was the only hope these families would ever have to secure housing for their children (neglecting to tell them they had located the housing for the disabled in a tsunami inundation zone).

Naturally these parents became vociferous advocates for the project. They brought their disabled children to the hearings and did exactly what the developers had hoped – with not a dry eye in the house, no one could see the project anymore. The developer had moved the attention from a project that violated local and state zoning onto a small and deserving group of individuals. It was heartbreaking. And it was world-class misdirection.

The lesson here is that misdirection is designed to distract you from the truth. Obscuring a fact-based argument with a faith-based one is what demagogues do – in policy and politics.  See through it. Help others to see how this kind of misdirection distorts their perspectives.

My third story was about the day I learned to Follow the Money

The business model for real estate developers isn’t hard to understand – they buy farms and ranches then build houses and sell them off. And in California if you can build 1,500 houses on a 400-acre farm, that might be worth a billion dollars. Developers make their profit off the difference between the cost of the land and the net profit on the houses.

But one obstacle for California developers is that the Coastal Act says you can’t build on land that has been designated a Sensitive Habitat or wetland. So, if you’re a developer, having any land declared sensitive is a loss of potential revenue.  In fact, it can kill the project. However, … there is one loophole in those rules – if you’re a farmer you can plow under anything.

So as a consequence,real estate developers are great farmers. They buy-out family farms for prices that far exceed what the farmers could ever get from selling their crops. And then they lease the land back to them so they can continue to farm. The developers invest in equipment so farmers can plant multiple crops each year, till each and every inch of their fields, and ensure those fields are perfectly level so no water can collect on the fields.

When I first ran into this I thought, “Wow what a great deal. The developers are great for the environment, they’re helping farmers by making all these improvements.

It took me a year and lots of looking at puddles on farms for the dim lightbulb to go on over my head. Real estate developers couldn’t care less about farming or the crops.

The developers were keeping the farmers plowing the fields to make sure no sensitive habitat would appear.  And the day a developer got the zoning approvals, the bulldozers would show up to start building the houses that would bury the farm.

The lesson here was that when I was standing in the farm field, I wasn’t looking at a puddle – I was staring at a billion dollarsv- and I didn’t see it.

So when you hear or see something that is too good to be true – follow the money. It’s usually a long and winding road – but eventually you’ll find it.

My final story is: if you want to make change you have to learn to communicate and inspire others.

In all these lessons, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the namesake of your school – Rachel Carson. You all study her work your first year here. You know she was a marine biologist at theU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – only the second woman in the job – and she served as editor-in-chief of all its publications.

Her 1962 book, Silent Spring, launched the modern environmental movement.

The book’s title evokes a spring when all the songbirds died. Ittold the story of the damage caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides, especially DDT, to control insects. It educated a mass audience, most who had never seen a scientific paper in their lives, about how these chemicals entered the food chain, accumulated in the tissues of animals and ultimately made their way up to humans.

DuPont and other chemical companies threatened Carson’s publisher as well as the New Yorker and Audubon Magazine unless their planned Silent Spring features were canceled but nevertheless, she persisted. The book was a moral call to arms for people to take personal action.

Rachel Carson wasn’t first to raise concerns about DDT, but her impact was to communicate scientific evidence in a way that the general public could understand – she used facts to inspire others to take action.

In naming this college the donors said, “Carson, like UC Santa Cruz, epitomizes love of the natural world, ethical judgment based on sound scientific principles, and the persistence and courage to create change.”

Change happens when you can educate and inspire others – when you can use facts to create faith in what’s possible.

For those of you who will continue in the sciences or research, the easy part will be to write papers for your peers. The harder part is how you’ll explain “inconvenient truths” to people who may not want to hear them. How will you rouse an audience to action?

Finally, why do public service?

My work on the Coastal Commission took four days of my week each month in public hearings – at times in exhausting 12-hour days. And I’ve sat on the boards of other local and national non-profits.

But why serve your community, state or country? For me, I volunteered my time because of a gift I received my first year in college.

On my first day of school in Michigan I met Michael Krzys, who one day would be the best man at my wedding.  As we got to know each other, I pretty quickly realized that I had met my match, someone with even more curiosity, creativity and a wry sense of humor.

But as I got to know Michael, there was another, completely foreign part of him I didn’t understand. It would take me another 30 years.

From the day I met him he had a commitment to public service that was deep, heartfelt, profound, unshakable and to me, mysterious and completely unfathomable. Even as a freshman, Michael already knew that his calling was to help others and to do so he was determined to become a public service lawyer.

It confused and unnerved me to know someone with so much certainty about the meaning and direction of his life.  It couldn’t have been more different from mine.

After our first year our lives took different paths. When they would touch again, it would be in ways neither of us could have predicted. 

I left school and joined the Air Force during Vietnam, and Michael and I kept in touch via letters – me telling him about adventures in the military, fighter planes, electronics and foreign countries. His letters to me explained that while he appreciated my dedication to national service, public service was the higher calling. Each of his letters ended with him reminding me that I was destined for a different career.

When I got back from Southeast Asia, Michael was in Law School and I was stationed nearby. Over dinner we’d argue about politics, talk about how to best save the world, and he’d tell me what he was learning that week in his law school classes.  I remember when he taught me the best way to understand an issue was to learn how to argue both sides of a case.

When I got out of the military, Michael was finishing up law school. A year later he and his new wife headed to the South to work for Georgia Legal Services.

I moved to Silicon Valley, and we kept up a sporadic correspondence, me trying to explain startups and Michael telling me about the world of civil rights and social justice for the poor.

If possible, it seemed like his excitement for what he was doing matched mine.  I just didn’t understand why he did it.

For entrepreneurs, understanding why people dedicate their lives to working for non-profits is hard to fathom. Why work for low pay, on something that wasn’t going to deliver a product that would change the world?

Today, each time I see the staffs of those non-profits I support, I get a glimpse of that same passion, commitment and sense of doing right that I first heard my freshman year decades ago.  For the best of them, it’s not a job, it’s a life-long calling. They remind me of what Michael might have become.

One fine California April day, three years in Silicon Valley and now into my second startup, I got a call from someone in Michigan who had been trying to track me down.

Michael and his wife were bringing some kids to camp, and he was killed in a head-on car accident with a drunk driver.  His wife and the kids survived.

It took me a long time, but as I got older, I realized that life was more than just about work, technical innovation and business. Michael and others worked to preserve and protect the values that made life worth living.  And while we were making things, they were the ones who were changing our society into a more just place to live.

There wasn’t a day that went by during my time on the Coastal Commission that I didn’t wonder what Michael Krzys would do. He was my model as a human being who found his own compass.

I always hoped that mine would point in the same direction…

Graduates, as you set out on your own extraordinary adventures, remember the measure of a life is not time or money. It’s the impact you make serving God, your family, community, and country.

Your report card is whether you leave the world a better place.

Carpe Diem. Seize the Day.

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