Eric Ries – from startup guru to corporate troubleshooter

Orla Browne, November 16, 2017 4 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech City UK website.

Tech Nation Talks, with Eric Ries, 13th Nov. By Angela Jameson.

Startup groupies came early to Cass Business School this week to catch a glimpse of Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, who was discussing his latest book The Startup Way at Tech City UK’s latest Tech Nation Talks.

Judging by the long queue for book signing, the crowd was delighted to meet their guru.

Eric Ries is an interesting character to talk to in the current climate. He knows all the secrets of the Valley but he also can’t dish the dirt too much, because he’d never get hired again.

In person Ries is lightening sharp and uses the fast-talking repartee and dry wit we all love in an Aaron Sorkin script. Interviewed by Ingrid Lunden, London-based writer and editor at TechCrunch, he was insightful but ultimately controlled in what he gave away. He does have a book to sell.

From startup guru to corporate troubleshooter, Ries is becoming the go-to business consultant for big business. That’s not surprising, because the world’s biggest firms have always loved to sign up to fashionable management theories.

But Ries sees through their intent. He knows they don’t really get it – and why should they?

One big company that Ries has more time for is GE, the manufacturing and energy giant which coincidentally unveiled a turnaround plan that disappointed Wall Street this week.

Ries joked about the big numbers involved in GE projects, but I think he is really quite proud to be rated in that organisation, which is a bit like the Harvard of industry.

For entrepreneurs and business leaders who want to pay a little bit more than lip-service to strong leadership there were some great nuggets in his conversation.

Ries bemoaned the short-termism of investors which leads to managers who focus purely on quarterly results. One way he gets managers to think long-term is to ask them what legacy they will leave to the people coming up behind them, to whom they will hand over the business. It is only by having a long-term philosophy that you can sustain a culture of short-term rapid experimentation, he said.

Ries was also scathing of the constant need some companies have to press release every incremental product announcement. Product iteration is worth doing, he argues, but please do it quietly or in secret. The companies that are really good at this – largely consumer tech – manage to do 50 versions of their product development before announcing it.

He also talked about his lean startup friends, many of whom have lost their startup DNA. All too quickly, he said, today’s hottest companies end up looking very similar in terms of their organisation to Ford in the 1920s. The “org chart” is identified by Ries as one of the biggest barriers to innovation.

But the most revealing part of the discussion was when Lunden asked him about harassment in the tech sector, with reference to one very well-known ride hailing company.

Borrowing an analogy from another commentator, Ries said that sexual harassment was really the canary in the mine for the tech sector. Where there have been reports of bad behaviour, his suspicion is that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Lunden asked him if he had come across harassment at the companies he’d written about and worked with. He response was illuminating: “I’ve been mostly too cowardly to say anything about it. I feel embarrassed [about his silence] and I think we all should feel that way. We have known it’s gone on and we have decided to ignore it.”

He added that on occasions that he has spoken or written about diversity “nothing is more controversial with other white dudes.” Even the most anodyne of comments raise a backlash, he said.

“So I’m grateful to women who have pioneered and spoken out because it creates a cultural norm for us to talk about it. You think it should be enough to say it is morally wrong, but it isn’t.

If we want to promote a culture of innovation we actually have to believe that good ideas can come from anywhere,” Ries said.

Ries more than anyone knows just how difficult a challenge it really is for even young sectors, like tech, to break out of traditional structures and hierarchies. Career preservation becomes, at some point in middle management, most executives’ biggest motivator, whatever incentive is dangled.

Without spilling the beans, Ries made it clear that some of Silicon Valley’s biggest successes wouldn’t find it easy to apply The Startup Way.

This audience, though, they were still up for the challenge.

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