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Listen Like a Lion

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: April 22, 2016

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If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read The Lean Startup (if not, please stop, go order the book, and come on back). Those who haven’t yet dug into it typically know the book’s major premise is efficiency.

But this isn’t some be cheap and fail fast nonsense. It’s what efficiency means at its core: accomplishing something with the least waste of time, effort, and/or money.

Lean is about wrapping a process and methodology around a vision so that you’re not entirely dependent on huge sums of money and many years just to test that vision.

It helps give entrepreneurs the agility to test quickly and the knowledge necessary to pivot accordingly. As Ries put it:

The ability to learn faster from customers is the essential competitive advantage that startups must possess.”

What’s at the heart of “learning from customers?” Listening. And it’s a major reason why Lean Startup Company, founded by Eric Ries, Heather McGough and Melissa Moore, came to be and why it’s continuing to grow its community of entrepreneurs and corporate innovators who believe innovation can be continuous and growth can be sustainable.

The book became a global phenomenon,” Heather McGough began. “The methodology has gone beyond the tech sector and beyond two people in a garage. It’s used by large complex companies, government agencies, scrappy nonprofits, educators and more. There’s great excitement; we’re feeling it and listening to it. People are hungry for ways to take the tactical and make it practical based on their circumstance, and we’re thrilled to be in a spot to help them do that.”

The importance of feeling and listening sunk into McGough’s bones during her seven year career in the nonprofit sector. Her experiences in AmeriCorps, where she worked on literacy campaigns, and with City of Dreams, where she worked with youth living in four of San Francisco’s public housing communities, guide her own sense of what it means to be a lean startup.

I love listening to a person’s vision, then helping them use a measurable and iterative approach to validate and bring it to life,” says McGough, who leads the training program and product development initiatives at Lean Startup Company. “But my goal isn’t to grow this into some kind of 7 billion dollar business; it’s to help us support folks in the best way we can, and many times this means bringing Silicon Valley out of Silicon Valley.”

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This fall, McGough’s team will bring Lean Startup and modern management lessons to Detroit to help various urban renewal efforts, and they’ve got their eyes on several social missions in New Orleans as well. Still, to get Lean Startup Company off the ground demanded a ton of listening. Years, actually.

I worked with Eric for many years, and I found myself in a role that enabled me to listen and learn from the community. Through simply speaking to people and companies across the globe, I came to see they were thirsting for more knowledge to support the creation of their products and services,” McGough said. “For some, they were a community without a community, and over time it became clear what we had to do.”

When McGough said, “listen and learn,” I myself, for a moment, stopped listening so deeply. My mind flashed back to a memory years ago when I was at a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, leading the sitting meditation, guided us through a session on the importance of deep listening. At the conclusion, he said: “Maintain deep listening, but when you stand up please move with the slow, gentle, firm steps of a lion.”

Lean Startup Company, because they had listened rather than assumed, has quickly become the official place for people to learn more about Lean Startup methodology. They’re creating educational campaigns and soon online classes, they provide in-person training and coaching for larger, more complex organizations who seek to ingrain the startup mindset into their company culture, and they host an annual conference.

All this listening and learning,” McGough says, “applies to our own team as well. We practice Lean Startup methods; we’re a startup ourselves. We’re constantly screwing up and rerouting.”

Naturally, they also place a premium on learning fast about their colleagues. They listen to their wants, and move forward from there. If a particular employee is immensely talented and loves working on certain things, but absolutely despises some other part of their work, the team strives to find ways so that the dreaded work can be taken off the plate.

In other words, running an efficient startup is also a constant process of helping employees fuse their talents and passions. Chances of success are greater when each team member is aligned toward the common goal and loving their work.

You can grow and acquire as many companies as you want,” McGough says, “but that might not mean your company will automatically ‘operate like a startup.’ Smart companies know that practicing Lean Startup and modern management techniques give teams of all sizes in any sector the edge so crucial for innovation.”

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks an important question:

You spend years learning how to read and write, and years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training have you had that enables you to listen so you really, deeply understand another human being?”

For McGough, that training came during years in the nonprofit sector and continues to be an immensely important part of her work. It’s worth it for all of us to think about where ours came from, and about how we can better integrate listening like a lion into our everyday lives at home and at work.

After all, listening is the leanest way to learn.

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