Validated learning — from city hall

St. Louis city hall postcard (Wikimedia Commons).

You can’t fight city hall, as the saying goes. But you can get early feedback from it.

A real-life story: I need to title a boat trailer, which of course means that I must go to the local authorities and apply, submit documents and pay the various fees. As I prepared to walk from the Asynchrony office downtown to city hall (which, by the way, is one of the loveliest buildings in St. Louis, in my opinion), I reviewed the “payment methods” listed on the application. Drat! I hadn’t brought my check book. So I knew then that I would not be able to complete the transaction in this visit. I would have to try it tomorrow.

Or would I? As many people know, a transaction with the government is seldom, er, a smooth, straightforward process. I usually forget to bring some arcane document or receipt, or I find that the staff have closed up at some weird hour. This requires rework and wasted time (and not infrequently much frustration!). Instead of delaying the learning about those things, I decided that I would walk to city hall, anyway, and find out as much as I could, even though I would not be completing the transaction.

Upon my safe passage through the metal detector (shame that such a building is marred by such modern needs), the security guard helpfully directed me to the room where I needed to first obtain a waiver rather than entering straightaway into the title room (learning #1!). I waited my turn for about 10 minutes, then proceeded to the clerk, who took my application and asked if my address were correct. I asserted it was, and she, unamused, told me that I was in the wrong place: As I lived in the county and not the city (weird St. Louis thing — don’t ask), I was in the wrong place and instead needed to take my business to the county (learning #2!).

As I walked back to the office, I smiled to myself. Not only had I had visited the stately city hall on a lovely summer afternoon — I had learned something important!

In this case, the second bit of information — that I was in the wrong place — saved me time and effort. Now my next trip (to the county government location) would increase my chances of success, as early as the next day. Had I not spent a little time learning, I would’ve returned to city hall the next day with my checkbook but been turned away, delaying my goal.

This is what it means to build the right thing and avoid building the wrong thing. This is what the lean-startup people mean when they talk about eliminating or reducing uncertainty. Learning is valuable, as it saves time and effort.

How does this apply to software and product development? Two ways, both having to do with releasing as soon as its possible to learn. First, it’s possible — and preferable — to obtain feedback about the product before you’re ready to launch. You may not believe you have all the features you intend to build, but you can find out if the ones you have built are the right ones. Second, though you may not be ready to push to production, you can and should find out all you can about what that path to production looks like by actually releasing something — anything — to a production-like environment.

When we visualize the end product, whether it’s a trailer title or the next killer app, we tend to assume that it’s going to be right and that the last mile will be fairly straightforward. I might’ve assumed that everything would go swimmingly when I showed up at the government office. In our projects, we assume that we’re building the right thing, and that the hard part is merely coding the thing. But experience with government taught me otherwise. Our experience building and delivering products should similarly instruct us.

So the next time someone questions your desire to release something early, emphasize the importance of learning from it. Why would someone walk to city hall knowing he wasn’t “feature complete” with his title application? To learn to avoid wasting time doing the wrong thing. And that’s tremendously valuable.

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