4 Common Misconceptions About “Lean Startup”

Since the appearance of The Lean Startup by Eric Reis, “lean” approaches have taken off like wildfire. As the name implies, “lean” is about reducing waste.

In the case of Lean Startup it’s specifically about reducing waste in business innovation. It’s an entrepreneurial method that seeks to ensure the right market-offering fit. Lean Startup is a new approach to continuous re-invention and how to deal with the inherent uncertainty involved.

But “Lean” has a long history and can mean different things in different contexts. And just saying you’re “lean” doesn’t ensure you’re following the Lean Startup approach.

There are many misconceptions about Lean Startup in software development.

#1 Lean Startup is an engineering process. (No, it isn’t)

Lean Startup does not mean getting code out faster. Instead, it’s what happens before you build anything for commercialization. Look to agile and extreme programming for faster development, not to Lean Startup.

The cause of this misconception stems from how progress is measured, namely with learning. Ries writes in The Lean Startup :

Lean Startup asks people to start measuring their productivity differently. Because startups often accidentally build something nobody wants, it doesn’t matter much if they do it on time and on budget. The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build–the thing customers want and will pay for—as quickly as possible. In other words, the Lean Startup is a new way of looking at the development of innovative new products that emphasizes fast iteration and customer insight, a huge vision, and great ambition, all at the same time.

Lean Startup often feels uncomfortable to production teams. Ries warns:

I predict that you pretty quickly will get feedback from your teams that the new process is reducing their productivity. They will ask to go back to the old way of working, in which they had the opportunity to “stay efficient” by working in larger batches and passing work between departments.

…When I worked as a programmer, that meant eight straight hours of programming without interruption. That was a good day. In contrast, if I was interrupted with questions, process, or—heaven forbid—meeting, I felt bad. What did I really accomplish that day? Code and product features were tangible to me; I could see them, understand them, and show them off. Learning, by contrast, is frustratingly intangible.

So remember: Lean Startup is all about getting the right value proposition, not cranking stuff out.

#2 Lean Startup means “just do it.” (Wrong!)

Many people think Lean Startup implies a lack of structure and rigor. Ready, fire, aim! On the contrary, Lean Startup requires discipline – a lot of it. But don’t conflate this type of discipline with traditional management techniques, which are often the cause of innovation failure in other contexts.

In The Lean Startup, Ries explicitly warns against the just-do-it attitude and reacting negatively to this new kind of discipline:

Entrepreneurs have been trying to fit the square peg of their unique problems into the round hole of general management for decades. As a result, many entrepreneurs take a “just do it” attitude, avoiding all forms of management, process, and discipline. Unfortunately, this approach leads to chaos more often that it does success.

What’s more, just moving quickly doesn’t ensure that you are following Lean Startup. You have to go through all the motions: What is your vision? What are your riskiest hypotheses? How will you test and measure your assumptions? When do you pivot? And so forth. That takes time, attention, and some elbow grease.

Lean Startup is a highly focused, team effort, not building whatever can get done fastest.

#3 An MVP is a lightweight version of a full functioning product. (Usually not)

The “P” in MVP (minimum viable product) is misleading. Keep in mind that customers don’t know what enables your product or service behind the scenes. From their perspective the product is what they see and experience. And that can often be faked.

Remember, your goal at first is not to build something but to learn. So an MVP should be the smallest thing you can do to prove or disprove hypotheses.

Ries writes in a blog post on MVPs:

The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

Some caveats right off the bat. MVP, despite the name, is not about creating minimal products. If your goal is simply to scratch a clear itch or build something for a quick flip, you really don’t need the MVP. In fact, MVP is quite annoying, because it imposes extra overhead. We have to manage to learn something from our first product iteration. In a lot of cases, this requires a lot of energy invested in talking to customers or metrics and analytics.

You need to get the right MVP to test. Recounting a real-life consulting situation, Steve Blank – a father of the lean movement – describes it well in his post “An MVP is not a Cheaper Product, It’s about Smart Learning.” Instead of building hardware and software to test an idea, Blank recommended the team rent the hardware and crunch the numbers by hand. Then give the results to the end consumer and see if they find it useful. No development needed at all, and the turn-around time for learning is days, not weeks or months.

Broadening your definition of MVP to “the shortest path to evidenced-based learning,” as lean expert Anders Ramsey defines it, will reduce a lot of waste upfront.

#4 User testing will just slow you down (Er, um…that’s the validation part)

With Lean Startup, progress is measured by learning, not meeting deadlines or budgets. And you will not learn by sitting around a table rationalizing your decisions.  As much as you’re convinced your product is amazingly awesome, you are not your customer. And you can’t will your enthusiasm on them.

Instead, you need to “get out of the building”, as Steve Blank has famously said. Reis proclaims in The Lean Startup:

Startups need extensive contact with potential customers to understand them, so get out of your chair and get to know them.

But the goal isn’t to get direct answers to your questions: they won’t be able to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on your vision or value proposition like voting. Instead, you must empathize with customers and see the world through their eyes. What’s their mental model of the world? Reis recommends employing techniques from the design canon:

There are many techniques for building an accurate customer archetype that have been developed over long years of practice in the design community. Traditional approaches such as interaction design or design thinking are enormously helpful.

And of course testing your MVP – even if it is a completely fake product – is an essential part of the Lean Startup process. So user testing should ultimately been seen as something that speeds you up because that’s when you learn. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re not doing Lean Startup.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

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