Nearly a year ago, I introduced on this blog my new business project. Heavily influenced by our experiences with kanban and task boards, with my business partner Erik Renaud, we founded Slingboards Lab, a software publisher aimed at marketing these collaboration boards to business teams. Through the provision of slingboards, our startup brings sticky notes to smartphones, tablets and the web for empowering teams to better collaborate.
Being familiar with Lean Startup, a method for developing businesses and products first proposed in 2011 by Eric Ries, it was obvious that we wanted to apply this approach. A lean startup invest its time into iteratively building products to meet the needs of early customers in order to reduce the market risks and sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches and failures. Startups begin their journey not by making money but by learning how to build a sustainable business. This learning can be validated by running experiments to test each element of the entrepreneur‘s vision.
In the last twelve months, we have done a wide range of business-hypothesis-driven experimentations. Here is what we have learned about the target customer:
The more we tried to better define our target customer, the more we realized that our mission targeted a very fuzzy customer - teams. In addition, we were approaching teams on the theme of collaboration. Unfortunately, improving collaboration is not an attractive need for teammates. What we have learned is that collaboration is not a leitmotiv. People want things done, and in order to get things done, they focus on individual contribution, avoiding collaboration with shared accountability.
This learning took us back to square one. Our mission did not hold water. We were wrong when we thought there was a need to improve collaboration among teammates with a visual tool.
- Programming platform: Our customer is not the programmers who build the collaboration boards. Programmers want to stick with their existing programing platform.
- Teammate: Our customer is not the teammates who use the collaboration boards. Peoples hardly describe themselves as teammate. Nobody gets a promotion or a salary increase because they are "teammate". Teammate is not an appealing identity.
For several months we thought about this dilemma. We challenged our original mission. Again, we have done another range of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation. This time focusing around collaboration. By collaboration, we mean the one that’s intended to create “something” in support of a shared vision. It is goal-oriented, is not an individual effort and has a defined team that is responsible for delivering that “something”.
Here is what we have learned about collaboration:
- Collaboration among teammates boils down to the assignment and delegation of tasks.
- Tasks get done by a single teammate. Co-creation by several teammates is not part of work habits.
- If a single teammate gets accountable to complete a task, it usually gets done. A common practice is to always assign a task to a single teammate at a time.
- To ensure tasks are done by a single teammate, tasks are splatted in smaller entities.
- Collaboration is almost synonymous with work decomposition and individual contribution.
- Organizing and splitting tasks in small entities is an intellectual challenge. It is difficult to break-down large tasks by splitting it recursively into smaller ones until all of the remaining tasks are trivial. A common practice is have only one teammate taking ownership for this duty.
- Splitting tasks is difficult because the knowledge necessary to do the job is acquired progressively, often shortly before task need to be completed. In many teams, upfront planning is challenging and almost impossible.
This learning teach us that teammates co-produce unit of value as individual contributor but hardly co-create or co-design as a team. Contrary to our hypothesis, it seems that co-creation is not an intrinsic need. Organizing work and splitting tasks takes all the space. This is where there is a need, a real opportunity. In addition, it should be noted that this opportunity is not a team requirement but rather an individual requirement express loudly by the teammate responsible for work decomposition and assignment.
What should we conclude from all this? Obviously, we should redefine our entrepreneur mission and align with what we have learned. Can we? Should we? Is it possible to offer a task board that will speak to individuals (not a team) and will simplify work decomposition while allowing to easily track tasks assignments? This is a stimulating challenge. It is time to make new product-hypothesis-driven experimentations. Stay tuned.