Last week, Paul, Tomomi and I attended the 2011 Fall edition of Digital Garage’s The New Context Conference, here in Tokyo. DG’s Chief Technology Officer, Ian McFarland assembled an all-star cast of Lean Startup evangelists and enthusiasts from around the world to introduce some of the core concepts to a Japanese web industry in which projects are still largely run according to a more traditional waterfall model. The conference was held over two days, with a traditional speaker/panel agenda on Thursday, and a more improvised “unconference” on Friday.

Joi Ito (MIT Media Lab) kicked off the conference Thursday morning with a sprawling, energetic assessment of the “AI” (after internet) world, including the methods and outlooks that produced some of its greatest innovations. His call for all of us to proceed, not with maps, but with compasses, was echoed by speakers throughout the event as a fundamental requirement for lean entrepreneurship.

A photo of the panel session with some liberal hand-waving Panel Session on Integrated Design and Development for Lean Startups. Photo by Chiaki Hayashi

On Thursday afternoon, I joined a panel session with Joi, CJ Kihlbom (Elabs) and Brian Flanagan (HyperTiny), moderated by Mikihiro Yasuda (Digital Garage), to discuss the integration of design and development within a lean startup. Lean startups, a term popularized by Eric Ries and the theme for this year’s event, are businesses that operate based on a set of agile business, design and development processes, in order to more quickly find and meet market needs.

CJ started our panel with a short presentation of how designers and developers work together at his agile web development company, ELabs. His teams tend to get the best results working side-by-side on the same problem at the same time, in the same medium, whether it be sketching on paper or prototyping in HTML, even if one has the title of designer on their business card and the other has the title of developer.

The panel was in agreement that any such collaboration must begin, not only with shared tools, but shared values, tastes and respect. I recounted some activities that led to successful collaborations at AQ, including starting projects with a non-design, non-development creative task, like co-writing a key piece of content that defines the product.

Thursday wrapped up with an introduction to the concept of a lean startup by Janice Fraser of Luxr, a San Francisco based consultancy focused on “creating high-performance product teams in high-growth startups”. Janice stressed the importance of “getting out of the building” to talk to your customers, releasing so early you’ll be slightly embarrassed when you look back, and continually interrogating your product to ensure it has not only a problem/solution fit, but a product/market fit.

Photo of our Unconference session on Lean Content, lead by Chris and Tomomi. Our Unconference session on Lean Content

On Friday, Tomomi and I hosted a late afternoon unconference session asking what it might look like to apply lean startup principles to content strategy and content creation. During the session, we unearthed all kinds of problems that typically pop up in the content creation process, including ambiguous ownership and content scope creep. We ended the session by putting our own top secret product on the chopping block, asking the group for suggestions on reducing the barrier to launch without sacrificing content quality. We weighed a spectrum of content creation options, from fully DIY to Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing, including potential tradeoffs in community-building, content quantity and content quality.

We owe a great thanks to ON Lab’s Hiro Maeda for inviting us to the event, as well as the many speakers and participants. We learned quite a lot and had a good time doing it!