Disruptive Innovation using Agile Development and Lean UX

Courtney Hemphill ·

Rob Fan, CTO of Sharethrough, recently gave a great talk at the Lean Startup Circle on “Sustaining Disruption: How to Balance Innovation & Early Growth“. Rob spoke about the difference between sustainable and disruptive innovation and the importance of maintaining a balance of both in the progression of a company of any size.

Today’s startups are challenging many traditionally established companies with a healthy dose of disruptive innovation. Larger organizations cannot often effectively respond since it requires diverting resources from their established products, markets and customers. If unable to find ways to continually innovate and improve their offerings, established companies run the risk of flat lining their revenue streams as doing what they already do offers less and less bang for the buck over time.

Sharethrough has already developed a successful business by finding an innovative approach to native placements for online video advertising and is proactively looking at new ways to innovate in their market. Given the need to support their existing successful offering and the difficulties of moving resources and altering revenue streams, an über lean team of one started a skunk works project that quickly gained internal support. Sharethrough asked Carbon Five to help turn their fledgling prototype into a working Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

We formed a small team consisting of a UX designer, a pair of developers from Carbon Five and a product manager from Sharethrough. The small, balanced team team, external to both the main product offering of Sharethrough as well as any organizational processes, allowed for an extremely nimble and creative approach to product definition and development. Design could run in parallel to development processes and was integrated organically based on priorities expressed by the user and then set by the product manager.

Using a combination of Lean UX and Agile development practices, our weekly iteration cycle ran like this:

  • Monday mornings consisted of a retrospective and discussions of our findings from customer feedback and user testing.
  • This meeting would always produce an idea or feature set based on needs or pain points we had heard voiced by our users
  • A use case, hypothesis, or metric would be agreed upon by the group to be tested in our user interviews at the end of our iteration (usually that Friday)
  • A story writing session would follow.
  • Tuesday through Thursday would involve an agile process that blended design exercises with code development to ensure everyone was working together toward the shared objective for Friday’s test sessions.
  • On Friday, users were brought in for testing and each session recorded. Team members could discuss the results of the test and then had the weekend to mull over their findings.

Over the course of the project, we had moments where our attempts at meeting users’ needs failed miserably and we went back to the drawing board (check back for a future blog post on this). During some of these initial flops, we made use of the time we had with our captive audience and grabbed printed out paper icons and a white board and ran through quick and dirty prototypes with them. We had several ah-ha moments using this method which directly led us to our final successful feature set that then tested positively with users. These failures and our learnings from them, is what ended up leading directly to our successes.

The skunk works project has now come home to roost and has been transferred back to an internal Sharethrough team. They will be running the weekly iteration process we developed to take the product to its next level. Eventually it will be integrated into the existing offerings of the company.

We’ve been fortunate to work with some very innovative and smart early stage startups which have benefitted from their ability to be flexible and to respond quickly to changes seen in their customer base and markets. Larger companies generally have a much harder time switching up projects and initiatives for fear of cannibalizing their own revenue streams. Even if a rogue project gets an approval, internal pressures and multiple stakeholders can weigh down the efficiency of the development team.

Kudos to Sharethrough for curating a yin-yang balance of sustainable and disruptive innovation. I’d love to hear more stories about larger brands doing the same. Anyone have any personal experience with this? I’m also curious as to how companies manage integrating their skunk work projects into their existing brands. If the future is inherently uncertain, and our systems need to be as 
flexible as possible, why not use the methods proven in agile development and lean ux to keep our systems innovative and resilient?