Bridgebuilding through the lens of Lean Startup

Bridges are the most un-lean kind of thing to build. You work for months and months (or even years), and at any given point in the process, have about 0 throughput.

Mayor: "You've spent quite a few millions, and have been working for 8 months now. I see quite a bit of scaffolding and materials are in place. How many people crossed the bridge today Mr. Architect?"

Architect: "Well, zero. You see the bridge isn't done yet. When it's done we expect thousands of people to cross every day"

Mayor: "Enough with the waterfall thinking! You should be building incrementally! You're not even measuring any KPIs are you? You've made no progress since we funded the project, and you expect us to keep paying the bills?"

If funding decisions for bridges went this way, we wouldn't have too many of them. Thankfully, a bridge is a well understood concept, and we can work around the skepticism by pointing to other examples.

But what about the first bridge? It would have to be funded and built by people that understood the principles of what was being built. Even when parts of it collapsed during construction (part of building the first of its kind is that you don't know how), they would have to persevere, review their assumptions, and press on.

This exact situation, but worse, actually happenned with the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The third (and current) version of the building was started on 532 CE, completed on 537, after almost 6 years of work. Earthquakes on 553 and 557 made its dome collapse, due to over-ambitious design. The nephew of the original architect had to come back to fix the dome, increasing its curvature, adding more supports, and using lighter materials.

Since its completion, for 800 years, the Hagia Sophia was the largest enclosed building in the world. The Statue of Liberty can fit beneath its dome with room to spare.

Imagine seeing this vast project, 25 years after the start of its construction, with a collapsed dome, and trying to measure its success. If the decision to continue or not was left to someone thinking metrics, they wouldn't have much to go on.
They might point to it as a huge waste of resource, and humanity would have lost perhaps the most important building of the first millenium CE.

The same "bridge" pattern applies to nuclear power, flight, spaceflight, the human geonome project, the LHC, and Tesla cars. What they share is a huge upfront cost, and a huge payoff after the fact, and the inability to get this value by only doing part of the work.

Now apply this thought to startups. I sometimes wonder what companies we're not building due to our obsession with metrics and incremental progress.

Alexandros Marinos

I love to take the web to new places. Currently working on resin.io to bring web programming in contact with the physical world, so you can 'git push' JS to your devices.

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