Apr 10, 2015

Intellectual Honesty - Eric Ries and The Leaders' Guide

Andrew Chen just wrote the great story about his first encounter with Eric, and why he’s backed Eric’s latest book The Leaders’ Guide. It paints a bit of the picture of the early days, so inspired me to share how I’ve seen Eric grow from an unknown to an icon – and what I think drove him to do so.

I met Eric Ries in a basement in Texas.

It was 2010 in Austin - at SXSW, a massive startup party that describes itself as a conference.

It’s tough to remember how different that time was. Designer meant someone who makes your logo (except to designers). Gary Vaynerchuck was crushing it. Hipsters had nothing to do with startups. Accelerators weren’t a thing. Unless you were in San Francisco or Tel Aviv, nobody would take you seriously if you said “ecosystem.” 37 Signals and Alex Osterwalder were self-published, yet to have a best-seller. Eric’s book was years away.

Unlike Andrew Chen, I wasn’t in Silicon Valley. I was a nobody in a then nowhere startup town called London, England – but still, one of the early fans of Lean Startup.

The global Lean Startup community gathered in a small underground bar - all 50 of us. One of hundreds of “unofficial” SXSW parties that night. Dave McClure was a big Eric fan, and we were all surprised by a cameo from Cheezburger. (You can see a video here - and me with embarrassingly long heavy metal hair.)

Later that week, I had somehow managed to impress the SXSW organisers, and was enjoying a lofty sense of authority. There were a few buzzwordy Agile, and one or two Lean-themed, talks. I made a point to go to all of them. I was exit interviewing people to get their impressions.

At SXSW, a lot of talks are over-subscribed, and lines form outside. I saw Eric waiting in line, and brought him to the gatekeeper at the front: “Do you know who this is? It’s really important we let him see this talk for next year!” (This is called blagging in London - and “social hacking” at SXSW!)

Eric and I would stand at the back of the room, trading comments on the talks.

This was before Design had much to do with Lean Startup, and designers were the centre of attention at SXSW. All the Lean and Agile talks were given by designers, not techies or entrepreneurs.

Really eliminating waste

While I was worried about how to teach people, and who was getting it right, Eric whispered a bigger long-term goal:

“The biggest waste I see is the waste of human talent. Some startups and designers get it, others don’t. But the biggest waste of talent is in the corporate world. The best people can see years of their hard work crossed off by a management decision, made by a committee they’ve never met.”

But Eric would use language - words like “colonise” - which worried me.

Helping founders

I had already announced the first Leancamp in London. (At the time, Lean Startup was unknown, and this was a way to help raise awareness.) As Leancamp spread from there, its community nature would become a kind of Litmus Test for people’s intentions. Since nobody ever got paid for Leancamp, especially the speakers and organisers, you could see if people were motivated to help founders, or just speak because it was a marketing channel for them. I learned to read people from this environment.

So in time, I learned that Eric’s intentions were those of sharing and openness. He was very inclusive too, and wanted to share as much as learn. The language he’d used, which had raised my eyebrows before, was meant in that light. It was a tactic that represented the principle of sharing with others, and learning in new contexts.

And - in retrospect - I could see that even though Leancamp was designed around inclusiveness and neutrality, Eric had also held those principles closely. I think this is why he became a natural spokesperson for the diversity of people that gain something from Lean Startup.

Honest leadership

Over the years, I’ve heard Eric contradict his past self - something I’ve learned is essential in any intellectually-honest thought leader.

It’s the ones that never change their tune that are suspect - I’ve seen enough ignore critical feedback, choosing to let their followers continue to be misinformed, just so they can save face. Intellectual Honesty has become a guiding principle to me.

Even the other day, I was taking Eric’s Lean Content course for content creators, and I noticed differences in things he’d said there to those he’d said in that basement in Austin. Nuanced, but crucial adaptations about the cadence and speed of the learning loop.

Eric Ries still learns and shares, so I still learn new things from him.

Going “Corporate”

When Lean Startup started to “go corporate,” a lot of people saw this as a kind of selling out. But I realised this was just expanding Lean Startup to a bigger community - being inclusive - as it always has.

And it was consistent with the overall vision - what he told me all those years ago - to help us stop wasting our precious effort. We’re currently a species organised largely through Capitalism. So we need to include those in the world’s largest organisations - big companies.

Who do you listen to?

I’ve had the chance to break bread with a lot of startup stars, and once the celebrity-factor wears off, you’re left with the same question as anyone else: Why do I spend time with them? Why do I listen to them?

I honestly don’t know much about The Leader’s Guide as a product but I’m backing it anyway. Because I know that Eric’s motivations are to help others, and that he holds himself to a high standard in intellectual honesty. That means I’ll learn something new, and something real.

Here’s the thing with The Leaders Guide - it will only be made available to the Kickstarter supporters, so I’ve backed it. It ends in 5 days, on April 15th. I recommend you consider it too.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family. I’m also having fun with slow creative pursuits: making a few apps, writing, etc.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, with a few non-exec, advisory roles for cryptography and microchip manufacturing programs.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams