30 March 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Deriving Value When Getting Started with Lean Startup Methods

 “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game — Ice-T”

One night a month ago, @Evanish & I were having a conversation on Twitter about a subject we’re both passionate about: the Lean Startup Methodology.  Since Jason knows more about practicing Lean (and the Customer Development teachings from which Lean grew) than most, his comments are rarely taken lightly.  He shared his fear that the Lean “movement” would be threatened due to practitioners who only partially “get it”, inevitably fail, and then turn around and “blame” Lean for their lot in Startup life.

Undoubtedly there are people who take Ice T’s “wisdom” literally.  They fail at something, and look outside rather than in to see what went wrong.  In doing so, these folks miss a valuable opportunity to learn & improve.  That’s their loss.  People of this ilk are a poor fit for continuous improvement methods (like Lean) and, more importantly, poor evangelists for the concepts & teachings (regardless of their success or lack thereof).  But that’s not what stuck with me this past month…

How deep an understanding does one need to derive value from Lean Startup methods?

I’m reminded of my own past efforts to evangelize a methodology, Persuasion Architecture. Many moons ago @ FutureNow, we developed a methodology to help marketers leverage the web’s natural advantages in providing truly individual/customer-centric sales “experiences”.  In those days, a wise colleague shared:

A little {insert methodology here} goes a long way…

(especially if you 1st focus on learning before you focus on results)

Here’s where Eric Ries really deserves credit for having the courage to put out a methodology whose stated unit of progress is (validated) learning.

Inevitably, at training sessions or conferences, I’d meet those who’d read our books and wanted advice on “properly” implementing what they’d read.  I’d share my colleague’s quote (or my personal Voltaire favorite, “Perfect is the enemy of the good”) and encourage them that there is no “right” way or “wrong” way to follow a methodology, provided you stay true to it’s core tenets.

That’s what makes a methodology so valuable where so many “best practices” fail.  A methodology has value in that it points to a place in time, and provides an actionable strategy for how to get there, but stops short of prescribing specific step-by-step instructions for how to engage in every single situation.

Lean practitioners who pursue the methodology for “traditional” business results only (i.e. revenue, customers, garnering PR, etc.) miss the point.  Lean Startup is no magic bullet for building a business.  It is a roadmap for learning what works (and what doesn’t) for your business, your product and your target market.  It’s a series of concepts, ideas, strategies and actions you can take to swing the odds of success in your favor.  It teaches Entrepreneurs how to think for themselves, in a fashion that creates as little “waste” as possible in the process.

Set the bar low enough to get started

In terms of how “deep” an understanding one must have to derive value from Lean Startup methods, this seems to set the bar pretty low, right? I’d say, yes.  However, that’s a benefit, not a liability. 

Lean Startup, like all continuous improvement methodologies, produces value in proportion to the number of iterations/cycles one manages to work through.  As long as Entrepreneurs keep their heads in the right frame of mind (learning > results today), the barrier for entry to the 1st iteration should be low enough to easily get started, and provide a proportionally insightful outcome.  As the iterations continue, our understanding deepens, and presumably results increase.  This is where Alexander Osterwalder deserves great credit in describing his Business Model Canvas in terms of four levels of mastery. 

In my humble opinion, the more dogmatic practitioners are about the “right” or “wrong” way to practice, the less people feel empowered to try something new, and learn from their experience.  Yes, clearly someone who’s practiced customer development for years will have a much deeper level of understanding, and will apply the framework of Lean in a way that builds upon and extends their experience.  However, someone who’s just starting out is doing no great risk to their organization or to the “movement” of Lean Startup by trying (often failing, and picking themselves up again) to incorporate the key takeaways from Eric, Steve Blank, Jason or any other knowledgeable thought leader in the space.

Low barrier ≠ “Cowboys” & a lot of broken glass

I should clarify, it doesn’t have to empower Cowboys.  Notice I qualified the statement- “there’s no right or wrong way to follow a methodology provided you stay true to the core tenets”.That’s where Cowboys tend to get hung up in their quest to shoot first, aim second, and that’s where Lean practitioners have to focus to hold themselves accountable.

If you’re starting out with Lean, and wondering which tenets of Lean Startup could reasonably be considered “core”. Here’s my humble suggestions:

  • Always Be Deploying. The core of the Lean Startup is the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.  What matters is what we can prove, not what we “think we know”.  This means releasing your core product early & often, and measuring how customers & prospects respond.  The challenge comes after validated learning, and deciding whether to keep progressing down the same path, or pivoting to another path.
  • Get Out of the Building.  Within all great companies is a great product which solves a pain shared by a group of people.  A product vision to scratch your own itch is great, but unless you’re personally going to buy millions of units of your product, you’ll want to get out of the office and meet those who share your pain.
  • The Success Theater Is Closed. If the unit of progress in a Lean Startup is about learning, we have to make sure what we’re seeking out to learn is the stuff that truly matters.  This may mean “traditional” metrics are more “vanity” metrics- helpful in making people feel good, but far less helpful when it comes to understanding what makes our business grow.  Change can be scary, but few things are in a startup’s life are scarier than all “traditional” metrics going up & to the right while the bank account balance continues to dwindle.


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