Traveling to the other coast for the Lean Startup Conference was one of the best decisions we made in 2012. It forced us away from our desks and our backlogs. It pulled us together in an environment full of inspiring, energetic people. It gave us the time to identify and discuss the lessons we’ve learned in the past year. We’ve learned a lot.

During the past year of development on Sensei, our new retrospective tool, our team went through more than a few transitions. The changes were rocky at times, but I now see them as part of an evolution toward the strong internal team we hope to have in place soon.

At the start, our whole team and stakeholders focused on testing our main assumption: That organizations need a better way to drive, track and show continuous improvement over time. We presented a simple demo at conferences and gathered the feedback needed to prove we were on the right track. Project managers, developers and others seemed excited about an alternative to the sometimes painful process of sharing feelings and following up on commitments.

We listened, and we spent the next several months building. And that’s it: We kept building, releasing new features on a consistent basis without testing each assumption. Our cycle felt like build, build, build rather than build, measure, learn.

It wasn’t until the Lean Startup Conference that the error in our ways became very clear. Every one of us had read Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup and Ash Maurya’s Running Lean. We encouraged others to experiment and apply other lean startup methods. But in the excitement of building our first agile tool along with many other initiatives, we failed to focus most of our efforts on customer discovery and experimentation.

We released a “private beta” version this summer, allowing us to get more feedback. I focused conversations more on the solution than the customers’ feelings about pain points (validating the problems we identified). During that time, I’d been setting the tool up for the customers and taking them through a retrospective. They seemed to like what they saw in the current version and roadmap, so we kept building.

Then, when my control over who used the tool, how and when decreased with our first public release, I started getting emails asking for instructions on getting started. “What do I do first?” “Do I have to create teams before creating retrospectives?” “How do I know my teammates got the email?” Oh, boy.

Is the setup process that confusing? How did that happen? Quite simply, we’d been conditioned to use the tool perfectly. That, and when we did try to mess up to identify weak points, we focused on the core functionality: the retrospective. But if organizations don’t even know how to add users and create teams, they’ll never even get to the retrospective. The proof is in the data.

The good news is that we’re back on track. We’re reaching out to our customers to validate issues. We’re testing every assumption. We brought on the super-talented Monica Marziani to assist with UX and design. (Our first goal: Make it super easy to get started with the tool.) We’re also looking for an awesome front-end Ruby on Rails developer to join Raj in LitheSpeed’s new Herndon office.

We’re going to do it right moving forward, and plan to include you all in the process. I’ll be blogging about our strategy, product updates and lessons learned. In the meantime, shoot me an email or tweet to talk about your continuous improvement efforts or the product itself. If you’ve ever done a retrospective or just want your team to improve, I want to hear from you. If you’ve already tried Sensei and have yet to share feedback, I urge you to do so.

In the meantime, stay tuned for updates. You’ll be hearing much more from me in 2013.

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