This time I'd like to talk about a few rookie communication mistakes we made while trying to align our thoughts. In our case, the following three problems were a major cause of our initial lack of productivity. These problems might also be caused by us being inexperienced with building startups and the Lean Startup concept. Anyway, here they come.
This is the worst one because it drains your energy over long periods. Although we noticed pretty quickly that we were wasting too much time on senseless discussions we just kept going instead of fixing the communication problem. This resulted in some of us feeling lost, frustrated, and stressed to the point that it affected our sleep and health. Since Johannes joined our team a little bit later (he had to finish his diploma) he even thought that he was slowing us down (which in fact wasn't the case). Unfortunately, he kept that concern to himself - which only made things worse for him. Four mildly productive days passed by until we decided that we had to change something. Actually, we made that decision on a weekend once we had time to relax and reflect on our situation. We were too exhausted to do anything during the week.
Fix: Don't wait for communication problems to kill you. Discuss and fix them immediately. Regularly stop your work, leave your desk/office, relax your mind by moving your body (e.g., kick a ball), and reflect on your current situation.
This can result in never-ending discussions. For instance, this problem occurred when we created a business model canvas with our hypotheses about the target market. We argued about how people currently work or what they want or what their problems are. Nobody had actually talked to any potential customers, but everyone tried to come up with a more plausible hypothesis. However, the real problem is that nobody knows because nobody has talked to any potential customers. Why waste time arguing in the first place?
Fix: Let everyone state their hypotheses. Write them all down, stop discussing their validity, and instead test them with potential customers (if the assumptions are worth being tested). Even when brainstorming, you first write down all ideas without judging them. This keeps you focused on generating new ideas. By the way, you might also want to explicitly state whether a hypothesis is based on pure speculation or on something an expert has written (which might be misleading when trying to find out how the majority of users actually work).
People tend to talk in solutions. Maybe that's because they invest more time in finding a solution than in identifying the problem, so they want to be praised for their elegant, glorious solution. Hail, great solver, master of the problem! :) Unfortunately, it often happened that when one of us suggested a solution the rest of the team would focus on a flaw in that solution. The whole discussion would get nowhere for several minutes until we'd start focusing on the actual problem.
Fix: Clarify the problem you're trying to solve. Then, agree on whether it's a problem worth solving. Don't leave that step out! Only once you have agreement on the problem, discuss your solution. The Customer Development concept is doing pretty much the same by separating problem validation from solution validation, by the way.
I'm wondering how common these problems are in other startups - especially those founded by first-time entrepreneurs. Most startup blogs describe their heroic achievements or huge crises. Maybe other entrepreneurs are too ashamed of their everyday rookie mistakes? :) Anyway, if this post reminds you of your own team please leave a comment and tell us more about your mistakes and how you solved them.