What the Obama Campaign and GE Can Teach Us About Lean Start-up Methodology

Agile thinking gained a stronger foothold in businesses and organizations in 2012. The Lean Start-up methodology in particular has made inroads in two very surprising applications.

Lean Start-up Methodology

The Lean Start-up methodology created by Eric Ries emphasizes the rapid creation of a basic product (called a Minimum Viable Product or MVP) and then iterating on the results based on feedback loops from the market.

Lean Start-up methodology, with its emphasis on taking action and failing fast, has taken the startup world of young entrepreneurs by storm. But there were mainstream applications of Lean Start-up methods in 2012 from two very unexpected places. They were:

  • One of the largest companies on the planet, and
  • The biggest political campaign in history

Let’s look at each in turn:

GE Gets Agile

Depending how you count these things, GE is the third largest company on the planet. It makes everything from light bulbs to microwaves, and until recently, self-deprecating TV shows.

But GE knows bigger isn’t better. In today’s business climate, the ability to respond to change or agility is the most important factor to long-term success.

Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of GE, knows this well:

Business model innovation is constant in this economy. You start with a vision of a platform. For a while, you think there’s a line of sight, and then it’s gone. There’s suddenly a new angle.

In efforts as diverse as healthcare and the environment, GE the 20th century dinosaur is attempting to transform into a competitive, innovative, light-on-its-feet company built for the Agile Century. And it’s doing it by adopting the methodology of Lean Start-up.

How the Obama Re-election Team Adopted Lean Start-up

There was a U.S. presidential election in 2012. Didn’t notice?

Well, I covered President Barack Obama’s best time management tips a few days before he was re-elected by the American people by a comfortable margin.

It might surprise you that there’s another connection between President Barack Obama and agile: the Obama campaign was run using Lean Start-up methods.

Fast Company identified 5 ways the campaign was run like a Lean Start-up:

  • They measured everything
  • They used split-testing
  • They used micro-targeting
  • They streamlined processes
  • They used unconventional marketing

The Obama re-election campaign put everything under the microscope, from the mailers they were shipping to potential voters to the headlines in the emails they were sending to even having the President answer questions live on Reddit.

The Obama team executed on their ideas, tested the results, and iterated based on feedback. Along the way, they rolled their candidate to a convincing electoral win in a campaign that will undoubtedly be studied over the next four years.

3 Ways to Implement Lean Start-up Methodology in Your Life

#1: Prototype Fast

Our traditional teams are too slow. We’re not prototyping fast enough, not innovating fast enough. We need to systematize change.

Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of GE.

In business, prototyping is the act of creating a testable sample of a product.

In our personal lives, I think of prototyping as trying on a new persona. You’re prototyping a new you in an effort to get to the best version of you possible.

  • Are you a skier? How would you know unless you strap on some skis and go down a mountain?
  • Are you a dancer? How would you know unless you shed your shyness and start moving?
  • Are you a writer? How would you know unless you opened a blank word document and started typing?

The lesson of Lean thinking is try it before you commit a ton of time and energy to it.

#2: If You Don’t Measure, You Can’t Learn

Build-Measure-Learn is the fundamental feedback loop built into Lean Start-up methodology. Turning ideas into reality requires understanding whether or not what we’re doing is succeeding. And that requires measurement.

Some personal goals are easy to measure: lose 10 pounds, cut 15% of my budget, or get a $5,000 raise. Others are harder, like strengthening a relationship or getting over analysis paralysis.

That’s where you get creative, like measuring how many times you reach out to a person in a given month, or how many decisions you make in social situations. The point is to create some kind of measuring stick by which you can judge success or failure.

What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get better.

#3: Meet People Where They Live and Play

President Obama, armed with extensive demographic knowledge about his voter base, participated in some pretty unconventional activities to engage his constituents.

He organized a fundraising dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City fame to court middle-aged women. And he engaged his young, tech-savvy supporters through social media sites like Twitter and Reddit moreso than any candidate in history. In fact, his victory photo is the most liked picture of all time on Facebook.

The lesson for lifestyle entrepreneurs and creators is simple: Go to where your audience is. Obama succeeded in energizing his base and getting the people who would vote for him to turnout.

Lean Start-up methodology has applications outside of the startup world. The principles can change your life and I hope these unexpected examples inspire you to act.

Image by betsyweber.

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