To Tech Startups: NO, Chaos is not Part of the Game.

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“Chaos is NOT a condition of doing business.” — Karen Martin

The idea of this blog was inspired by Fabio Carneiro, who once taught me a great lesson in technology and product management. Specifically on How to avoid being a product or requirements monkey.

Back in the days, I argued with a startup owner, telling him; there has to be a better way to do the jobs internally. He responded with a cliché answer: “We are in a startup, so chaos is part of the game, let’s be flexible and hire more talents.”

I do not know how flexibility and more talents would fix that problem. The majority of startups I had experience with, had surrendered to that fact, and chaos became part of it’s cultural DNA and norm.

For a long time, I believed that chaos was part of the game, we tried Agile (of course; based on our understanding), and it didn’t work as expected, because our expectations were wrong and our understanding of Agility was shallow. Chaos and confusion are still all over the place.

Someone once said: there is a massive mismatch between what science says and business does. It is very true, and science offers ways to address the presence of the internal chaos in the majority of startups. Looking at the companies reviews at glassdoor.com, made me realize that this is a common problem and a lot of employees repeatedly voiced their concerns.

Before getting into one possible/practical solution, I want to highlight one fact; I believe that the CEO is also the leader. One of her/his primary duties is to rigorously visit and optimize strategies and existing workflows, and compose internal vision before an external one.

The CEO and her/his direct subordinates must implement that vision across the company’s divisions. And hopefully, by then, they can grow their businesses and achieve favorable results. Business value is not all about what the customer gets, but it is also about how the value is created internally. I believe encouraging proactive suggestions and seeking scientific solution, is definitely a better alternative to “Startup’s jargons.

How to solve this problem?

CEO, internal before external vision and mission, policy over politics and value stream mapping.

In this article, I will try to cover on a very high level the value stream mapping importance. However, hiring talents only, with a lack of robust operational framework will not solve the problem. There are many hidden talents within every startup, and I am sure they are never discovered.

One of the leader’s missions is to unlock the potential of their employees to rise and shine. It is easy to blame, and it is easier to delegate then blame. And the most comfortable thing that can ever be done is ignorance.

What is Value Stream Mapping (VSM)?

By definition (VSM), value stream mapping is a lean management method. It focuses on analyzing the entire cycle from request to delivery of products or services. It starts from the very beginning through to the customer.

The main focus of the value stream mapping is to provide the future state after understanding the current and proposing a transformational one.

One of its main goals is to provide the lead time, which is the period between the initiation of any process and the completion of that process including the idle time. We can take the lead time to a higher level and customize it to software delivery; then the lead time will be the total time from the request of the feature till it is delivered to the end user/customer.

One advantage of adopting VSM is to shorten the idle time during the lead time.

Lead time is calculated on a micro level. However, we can use the soul of that logic and apply it on a macro level.

What is the current state, future state and transformational state in VSM?

In my domain, I will focus only on operations, and in this case, it is the software development cycles. We operate both software and product teams to produce features. Features will be used by customers and add value to them and the business in general.

The current state is the status quo. How features are currently developed, what is the process, how effective is the process? What is the lead time from request to delivery (Current overall velocity)?

The future state is what we want to become.

The transformational state is how to get from the current state to the future state. How to eliminate idle time? What is the desired capacity? How to reduce the time to market? I have seen many plans put to execution after countless hours of meetings and planning and most of them jump from the current state to future state without a transitional plan in place, and most of these plans have failed.

Example of a current state, future state, and transformational state?

A software development company has a team of engineers, product managers, designers, and QAs. They work on delivering software for an online business.

Current State

Lead time = Time from Requirements → Done

Future State

Featured, design, explanations and understanding, work and ship to production after applying automation tests, CI, CD and sign off the feature with the PM.

Transformational State

The transformational state is a plan on itself, with a sole purpose of reaching the future state, no more planning, no more testing because it is fully automated, PM checks and approves a feature then it goes directly to production. There are technologies for that such as CI, CD, Unit testing, code coverage, automation tests, etc. work starts after the requirements are ready, the PM still manages a backlog, and scrum framework is there to ensure the continuous progress and growth

Why do we need Agile if VSM exists?

  • Agile methods focus entirely on continuous value delivery, where VSM is achieved when a Customer/Client/Operator/others receive business benefits.
  • Agile in most cases focus on the development team (Operations) Where VSM focuses on the entire value stream, this means the whole company.
  • Retrospective in Agile targets an increased velocity, where VSM is about improving the business value holistically.
  • They complete each other. We need both and both need to work together. That’s why the concept of Scaled Agility was created.

What else to guarantee a successful VSM?

Plan, do, study, adjust, and again. It is quite similar to the retrospective in the scrum but on a macro level. It is a continuous improvement and learning process. It not only done once and that’s it. It should always be revisited and improved.

Closure

Value stream mapping is as essential as applying agile frameworks in tech startups, and leadership must pay attention to the value it brings if they want their business to scale and also develop a positive and productive culture and working environment.

Talents alone are not enough, reward and materialistic compensation are not enough to push the startup forward. Planing without execution is also ink on papers, beautiful to look at and to present to investors but in reality, it is meaningless.

See where the value is, stream it, improve it and always step up your game. Maybe it won’t guarantee you a profitable outcome, but it will ensure a useful and productive journey.

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Craftsman in technology products. I love science, poetry and philosophy.