expert brant cooperThis is a guest post by Brant Cooper, Founder & CEO of Moves the Needle and speaker for our upcominig Innov8rs Los Angeles, 19-22 June 2018.

I empathize with Seyi Fabode’s recent take on Lean Startup.

The time from concept to buzzword these days is faster than the gap between a traffic light turning green and a cabbie’s horn blast.

While Eric Ries was not overly prescriptive in defining how to actually do Lean Startup, you can’t crowdsource that either. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with the Boaty McBoatFace version of Lean Startup.

First, let’s get this clear: Lean ≠ Lean Startup or lean innovation. Despite all the books that have emerged over the recent years which drop the term “startup”, lean enterprise this and lean enterprise that, they are fundamentally misnomers.

I understand that it’s awkward to say “Lean Startup enterprise”. But the business terms “lean” and “lean enterprise” have been around for decades, and the more recent shortcut versions are essentially redefining terms which have been entrenched in the corporate world and hence reap confusion today.

This may sound like semantics, but I’ll tell you why it’s a problem. Lean and lean innovation fundamentally operate on the opposite ends of the uncertainty continuum. Think about jet propulsion, for example. If you wish to invent a new way of propelling objects through space, you face massive amounts of uncertainty. You may want to utilize lean innovation techniques. If, however, you wish to implement a jet engine on a commercial airline, please, please leverage lean six sigma.

Fabode’s take on Lean Startup has to do with “wicked problems” and uses environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty as examples.

“You have to abandon what he calls the ‘short-termism’ of Lean and focus on longer term tests and higher points of leverage.”

Is this a critique of the evolution of the Toyota Production System, aka “lean” or “Lean Startup”? Hard to say. But since the headline of the article calls out Lean Startup, I’ll go with that.

Unfortunately, that statement represents a flagrant misunderstanding of Lean Startup. Lean Startup is exactly about tackling wicked problems, since they face so much uncertainty. Lean innovation provides a process for testing the riskiest assumptions about a solution idea. The specific problems with Lean Startup Fabode discusses are rife with assumptions.

False assumption #1: MVPs must be minimal

“The results of one test with an MVP won’t tell you anything useful.”

My interpretation of this statement is because wicked problems operate in complex ecosystems, one isolated experiment can’t tell you much. The small-scale result can’t truly reflect the large-scale result when placed within the other elements of the system.

This is an important point, which Fabode answers next:

“I’m not suggesting that MVPs are useless, but the scale of your problem should determine the scale of your MVP.”

That’s exactly right. A common misperception regarding an MVP is that it must be minimal, while completely ignoring the “V”: viable. Lean innovation doesn’t prescribe that the speed of experiment development in all industries rival that of Eric Ries’ IMVU chat application for teenage girls.

The point of the MVP is to reduce waste in the discovery of new value. Waste occurs mostly when people spend a lot of time and money building stuff that doesn’t work or isn’t desired by the intended audience.

If a “big” MVP is required to adequately test a solution idea, so be it. It may be useful to ask the question: “Can we think of a smaller, faster, less expensive version of the product which will give us some indication we are heading in the right direction? Is there an experiment we can run without building an MVP to act as a workable proxy?”

False assumption #2: It’s all about the data

“Whenever we are doing Lean Startup, we’re only focused on numbers.”

Lean innovation is focused on producing results that can be evaluated as objectively as possible; to limit decisions being over-influenced by personal biases. We run experiments (big or small) or produce results. We do empathy work to understand problems deeply and acquire insights which enable us to build better solutions.

Comparing how AirBnB used specific lean innovation methods to successfully discover value their customers with how one might solve world hunger is an obviously perfunctory comparison. To conclude that because AirBnB is a unique success therefore it’s practices shouldn’t be emulated (in a relevant way), is a rather bizarre conclusion.

Fabode’s replacement is “systems thinking”, a concept less well defined than Lean Startup. But it sounds like an important part of tackling “wicked” problems. But it is clearly not a replacement for lean innovation techniques (which Fabode admits).

Lots of people work on wicked problems, and as discussed in my book The Lean Entrepreneur, many of them used non-lean innovation practices to build solutions that didn’t work.

Maybe systems thinking would have helped them see that sooner or help determine what elements of their solution needed assumption-busting.

But in the end, the actual methods they used to bust the myths were based on Lean Startup principles, not systems thinking.