Manage Your Career Like a Lean Startup

These days, you can (and should) pivot into a new role within months instead of years.

“I feel like I’m walking off a cliff.”

When I was working on a major career change four years ago, I remember using those exact words. Often. Anyone who has faced a layoff, wanted to switch industries, or considered an entirely new profession is familiar with this sensation of immense risk. But, after learning to make smaller, more frequent changes, I've learned that career change today doesn't have to induce the amount of fear that it caused for professionals just a decade ago.

Once upon a time, we had a foolproof formula for success: Go to college to learn your trade, Land a job at a reputable company, and Climb the ladder of promotions until a comfortable retirement. Except, what if the company laid you off? Or what if you realized at age 40 that you want to do something totally different? Making a change meant taking big risks, and with those risks came fear.

The Lean Startup methodology has helped entrepreneurs quickly eliminate bad ideas and accelerate discovery of ripe opportunities. The Lean approach emphasizes rapid iteration cycles starting with a Minimum Viable Product and adapting based on market responses. By borrowing the three hallmark characteristics of a Lean Startup and applying them to the Startup of You, you can begin trying out a new role within days, gauge your potential success within weeks and actually be doing that work within months.

Do it Today. The barriers to entry for trying new skills have all but disappeared. You should no longer wait until you’re certified or hired to find out if you can do something. Want to switch from the technical track to a business role? Volunteer for a leadership position in one of your clubs. Need experience in an unfamiliar tool for a job you want? Sign up for a Udemy or Skillshare class. Strip down your next possible role to a Minimum Viable Profession, and start Doing it.

As soon as you start Doing, you should vocalize your new interest. The best LinkedIn headline I’ve seen was for a former colleague who left his sales job and changed his title to “Future Software Engineer” while he attended a coding camp. As a result, everyone in his network knew he would soon have a new skill and he got a several-month head start on his job search with that simple switch.

Measure Continuously. This is probably the most overlooked concept, which is why people fail to make progress. Every time you present your redefined professional identity, you have an opportunity to measure how your market (of career opportunities) is responding. Consider this parallel: Comedian Dat Phan used a scientific method to log and chart audience responses to his jokes, allowing him to tune his delivery with every performance and ultimately win the comedy competition show Last Comic Standing.

Online, review how changes to your LinkedIn profile affect the statistics of your profile views and messages to your inbox. In person, try different variations of telling your self-introduction story and see which ones yield more actions that could get you closer to your next job. Data is all around, if you know how to recognize what’s meaningful.

Adapt Your Vision. Expect to revise your target often based on the data you’ve measured, your observations, and new ideas. Read the market to see if you can spot where opportunities might open up. A friend of mine wanted her work to heal others, so she wanted to work for a non-profit. After voicing her desires along with her reservations about the sustainability of non-profit work, she learned about a new career option (corporate social responsibility) that could satisfy all of her professional ambitions.

In addition to observing external indicators, you should also read yourself to gauge whether you want to continue down this path or if it doesn’t feel quite right. If you notice that you keep procrastinating a task related to the field you’re pursuing, it’s time to re-evaluate which direction inspires and motivates you.

Image credit:
“Taking two steps back can often push you to move forward in your career” — Karen Kaushansky

The faster you can revise your professional identity, the faster you’ll recover from any ground lost by leaving your previous trajectory and the faster you’ll grow into the right career path for you. Don’t let fear delay your next career transition. Identify one thing you can start doing today!