On Agile Methods and the Rise of Lean Startup: An Interview with Arlen Bankston


Arlen Bankston is a lean six sigma master black belt and certified ScrumMaster trainer. In the following interview with StickyMinds editor Jonathan Vanian, Arlen discusses the rise of the Lean Startup movement, tools to capture customer feedback, and what constitutes good metrics.

Arlen Bankston is a lean six sigma master black belt, certified ScrumMaster trainer, and certified scrum product owner who has led agile and lean deployment and managed process improvement projects for clients such as Capital One, Neustar, and Freddie Mac. In the following interview with StickyMinds editor Jonathan Vanian, Bankston discusses the rise of the Lean Startup movement, tools to capture customer feedback, and what constitutes good metrics.

Jonathan Vanian: For those who may not be totally familiar, can you give a rundown of just how big the Lean Startup movement has grown to? Has the growth you seen in companies or organizations adopting these techniques been growing much more rapidly in recent years?

Arlen Bankston: The “Lean Startup” as such was coined by Eric Ries in 2011, and qualitatively speaking, its growth since then has seemed explosive. I went to the second Lean Startup conference, and there were a few hundred people expressing the same energy I saw at XP Universe 2002, one of the earliest “agile” conferences. Todd Park, the US CTO, was a key speaker, which gives you a sense of how the movement has certainly spread beyond its Silicon Valley roots.

JV: Can you give a rundown of some of the tools and techniques product owners are employing?

AB: Among the most popular are the various business model-planning tools, such as Trevor Owens’ Javelin and Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas, which product owners employ to guide release roadmapping activities. Many of these tools can work in either analog or digital form, and their simplicity makes them easy to adopt. The other areas I’ll be covering include Market Fit Testing, Release Planning, Prototyping, Landing and Launching, Analytics and Testing and Customer Service.

JV: Can you explain how product visioning and experimental design can benefit from the proper tools and techniques?

AB: All business cases are based on assumptions, which are usually wildly optimistic; these tools can help keep us honest by forcing us to visualize, share, and explicitly test these assumptions. This hearkens back to an old concept, introduced years ago in the Harvard Business Review, called “discovery driven planning,” which sits at the heart of many agile methods. What I’ve found is that when product owners don’t do a good job of figuring out how to measure the specific risks inherent in their initial strategy, their decisions become subjective and arbitrary. Agile methods can make change cheap, but they don’t ensure smart decisions.

JV: What specific tools do you recommend for those looking to capture customer feedback early in the production cycle?

AB: In the very early stages, in-person interviews are undoubtedly one of the most effective methods. At first, you’re trying to discover whether your supposed early adopters are in fact as thrilled about solving the problem you’ve posited as you are, and once that’s established, you’re using low-fi prototyping methods to see how apropos your solution might be. Aside from the oft-touted “get out of the building” notion, there are also digital approaches like crafting simple landing pages with tools like UnBounce and WuFoo to gauge interest through beta signups, pre-orders, and the like.

JV: There are always experts debating what exactly constitutes good metrics. What are examples of good metrics companies can gather that will help them in project visioning?

AB: Different metrics are appropriate at different stages of a product’s lifecycle. For instance, early on, you’d like something that helps you gauge the size and nature of your target audience, like signing up to be notified when the product is released. A customer that provides one’s email address is clearly more qualified than one that just clicks on an ad, and you’re looking to establish that meaningful bar for yourself at each stage. A common approach for the long term is to establish your key use cases and measure how often customers successfully complete them over time.

JV: Can you explain what exactly are “pirate metrics?”

AB: The term was coined by Dave McClure to describe acquisition, activation, retention, revenue, and referral (AARRR!), which he deemed a good set of metrics that cover a typical customer conversation funnel, from early interest to lock-in and finally organic growth through social recommendations.

JV: Can you share an example of how an organization adopted and applied some of the tools and techniques you mention in your session? What stumbling blocks did this organization face and how did it overcome those?

AB: My best example is from my own company, LitheSpeed, in the development of our tool Sensei. We trusted too much in our own instincts and internal validation and didn’t expose our initial idea to potential stakeholders deeply enough before we began development. After we’d invested a good amount in building (both monetarily and emotionally), it was almost too late to revisit the core proposition of the product. We’re using some of the customer-satisfaction tools now to tune the experience and continue learning, but we would have been better off if we’d been tougher on ourselves and our idea from the start.

JV: Have government agencies or related contractors been more hesitant to adopt any of the practices you discuss?

AB: Yes, though they’ve started doing so nonetheless. The problem with many government programs is that they’re supposed to be validated and thoroughly planned before they even begin, which is at the heart of the tension. The whole idea of the Lean Startup is to cull the weak ideas and uncover the hidden opportunities in early stages through quick prototyping, and you clearly can’t do that if you have to lock down the details of the project from the start. This inflexibility is built into many of the contracting structures commonly applied by government agencies. Even so, you’ll find plenty of stories of lean and agile approaches being applied by government entities, from the city of Palo Alto to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.


ArlenArlen Bankston is an established leader in the application and evolution of agile software development processes such as Scrum, Kanban, and Extreme Programming, as well as process management methodologies such as lean and six sigma. He is a lean six sigma master black belt, certified ScrumMaster trainer, and certified scrum product owner. He has thirteen years of experience, beginning in product design, where he leveraged principles of information architecture, interaction design and usability to develop innovative products that met customers' expressed and unspoken needs. Arlen has led agile and lean deployment and managed process improvement projects at clients such as Capital One, Neustar, CCP Games, T. Rowe Price, Freddie Mac, and the Armed Forces Benefits Association. Arlen's recent work has centered on combining lean six sigma process improvement methods with agile execution to dramatically improve both the speed and quality of business results. He has also led the integration of interaction design and usability practices into agile methodologies, presenting, and training frequently at both industry conferences and to Fortune

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