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Lean Startup

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Improve Government Services Delivery

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Lean Startup

“For long-term change, experiment immediately.” -Eric Ries, Lean Startup


Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Lean Startup is a framework for developing user-centered solutions through small-scale tests, regular end-user engagement, and continuous iterations. The Lean Startup approach allows federal agencies to experiment with new programs and use only the strongest and most effective idea. While many federal agencies are too large and established to be considered lean startups, smaller government programs and new offices can use the methodology. This approach can be adapted and applied to a broad array of agency-specific missions.

One definition for lean startup is working with incremental steps that include feedback loops to continually create improvements and scale projects quickly. The method emphasizes flexibility, pragmatism, and experimentation, which allows organizations to quickly understand their stakeholders, deployment issues, costs, resources, and ultimate mission value while delivering solutions that best meet stakeholder needs.

Adopting effective Lean Startup techniques can:

  • Break the status quo and overcome obstacles with effective change management processes.
  • Build an entrepreneurial mindset and agency culture that responds to stakeholders by design.
  • Generate new ideas for improvement and build capacity for translating ideas into action.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program was started in 2011 to increase the economic impact (through commercialization) of NSF-funded basic research. I-Corps provides experiential entrepreneurship training to teams of federally-funded researchers to better prepare academic researchers for commercialization of their funded research. I-Corps offers an evidence-based framework to support research commercialization. The rigorous boot camp curriculum emphasizes understanding customer or stakeholder needs and articulating a clear value proposition to implement or scale an idea, technology, product, or program. With guidance from established entrepreneurs and through a targeted curriculum, I-Corps participants learn to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from NSF-supported academic research. Over a period of six months, each team learns what it will take to achieve an economic impact with their particular innovation.

NSF has extensive experience in how challenging it can be to move research to commercial applications. They relied on this experience and sought guidance from established entrepreneurs to develop a targeted curriculum where I-Corps participants could learn to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from NSF-supported academic research.

NSF relied on a quick-turn, internal-review for proposals and limited their size to $50,000. The founding principle was to quickly provide small catalyst funds on a quarterly cycle; the near-continuous cycle allowed teams to explore the commercial potential on concepts as they emerged from the lab. Since its founding in 2011, NSF has increased the annual I-Corps program budget from $2M to $30 million in FY2017, held 44 cohorts, and worked with 950 teams of 2900 individuals through the national I-Corps program. It created a National Innovation Network of over 70 universities that has taught a version of the I-Corps curriculum to tens of thousands of researchers. Learn more at NSF Innovation Corps: From Science Lab to Startup.


Lean Startup methods apply a collaborative, team-based approach to accelerated problem solving. They emphasize challenging assumptions and reacting quickly to new information and feedback using hypothesis development and testing as part of the customer discovery. It is closely aligned with human-centered design (HCD) principles, which stress empathy, ideation, prototyping, and testing ideas to validate whether they meet the stakeholder’s needs.

Lean Startup applies to a range of activities, including program creation and management, procurement, and grant making.

There are four steps for Lean Startup:

Step 1: Break down your grand vision into component parts and sketch out your idea. Step 2: Test the problem (customer discovery/stakeholder analysis and engagement). Step 3: Test the solution with a pilot (Agile development). Step 4: Verify or pivot.

Step 1: Break down your grand vision into component parts, and sketch out your hypothesis. There are different approaches to defining a problem One tool is the mission model canvas, which is an adaptation of the business model canvas. It provides a structured process for developing a deeper understanding of the problem and the challenges of deploying a solution for mission-based organizations.

Step 2: Test the problem (customer discovery/stakeholder analysis and engagement) Your team should engage, collaborate with, and receive feedback from your stakeholders. In addition to users, you should engage your colleagues in legal, policy, procurement, etc., whose support you may need in terms of funding, mandates, user requests, etc. You will also need to get long-term support and. Conduct a thorough stakeholder analysis to identify all beneficiaries and engage with them throughout the Lean Startup Process.

Step 3: Test the solution with a pilot (Agile development) You will need to establish what a successful deployment looks like for your program. You can run a small-scale pilot to develop a minimally viable product (MVP) or beta-test based on what shows that your product works.

Step 4: Verify or pivot Once the pilot is implemented, step back to evaluate stakeholder feedback. It will help you to decide whether to conduct more tests on the pilot approach or if you should move in a different direction. Ask your stakeholders if they agree that you’re solving a high-value problem and whether the pilot/model is ready to scale up into execution and implementation.

When not to use Lean Startup may not be the right approach for your agency depending on your problem. Lean Six Sigma may be more useful when redesigning an existing process while Human-Centered Design may be more appropriate when designing a product to delight the users. Grand Challenges may be a better approach for agencies tackling highly ambitious goals where a minimally viable product, prototyping, and incremental steps will not achieve the goals alone.

How can we promote adoption?

You can use three main approach to promote the Lean Startup process in your agency:

Provide training through accelerator programs

Most federal employees are not trained in entrepreneurial approaches. Their work often involves large projects involving an entire system or enterprise. Accelerator programs, such as the Health and Human Services (HHS) Ignite Accelerator, provide a space to explore and test new ideas. The training, coaching, and support they provide is like startup accelerators in the private sector.

Accelerator programs contain the following elements:

  • Small teams - There are typically 3 to 5 people on a team
  • Competitive application process - Teams must submit their idea for selection from across an agency
  • Resources - Teams may receive seed-funding, tools, or something else.
  • Fixed time frame - Programs typically last 3 months
  • Training boot camp - Teams participate in a 3- to 5-day boot camp at the beginning of the program where they learn the practices of customer-discovery, prototyping, and product testing.
  • Coaching - Program staff check in with teams weekly to reinforce the methodologies
  • Pitch Day - Each team presents to senior leadership at the program’s end. They share what they built and learned, and pitch their idea to the judges for support to take their idea to the next level.

Promote online prototyping tools

Federal networks block many digital tools used for product prototyping for various reasons such as terms of service concerns. However, HHS offers guidance on useful tools that fully comply with federal regulations.

Encourage experimentation as a cultural norm

Many agencies’ culture doesn’t match the principles of starting small, growing slowly, and interacting frequently with users. Overcoming these barriers starts at the top. A culture of trying new things in small ways is an important step to address this entrenched issue.

Actions and Considerations

  • Define the problem and scope clearly and early. Adjust as necessary per feedback as necessary.
  • Conduct customer discovery/stakeholder analysis and engagement.
  • Develop a minimum viable product (MVP) that solves a core user need as soon as possible – no longer than three months from the beginning of the project, using a beta or test period, if needed.
  • Implement a version control system.
  • Use peer review to ensure quality.
  • Run usability tests frequently to see how well the service works and identify improvements.
  • Communicate closely using techniques such as launch meetings, war rooms, daily standups, and team chat tools.
  • Keep delivery teams small and focused.
  • Limit organizational layers that separate these teams from the business owners.
  • Release features and improvements multiple times each month.
  • Create a prioritized list of features and bugs, also known as the feature backlog and bug backlog.
  • Give the entire project team access to the issue tracker and version control system.


Federal agencies must follow various laws and regulations, including the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) and the Privacy Act, when collecting information from the public. You should also know SORN (Systems of Records Notice), as well as rules around personally identifiable information (PII), and laws that relate to your specific method of feedback collection (such as Section 508 compliance for online surveys).

Federal agencies must make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (29 U.S.C. § 794 (d)). GSA offers a robust overview of Section 508 Law and Related Laws and Policies.


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