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Stop lean-washing. Save the (start-up) world.
The “lean-washing” of the start-up world has to stop. The concept of the lean start-up, customer development and building minimum viable product have gone mainstream. Like anything popular, there are true practitioners and
then there is everyone else. Those who have studied the concept and integrated lean principles throughout their business practices are changing the way companies are built and defining a new path to success.
Everyone else is just lean-washing. In my experience lean-washing and the abuse of the lean start-up approach is out of control. Mis-understood and mis-used, I see the “MVPs” coming out of the lean-washing movement as the Most Visible source of Pollution on the web.
The concept of iteration informed by consumer feedback and usage data is powerful and it has been utilized in product development for a long time. In physical products you are forced into step-changes because of long feedback loops. The web allows us to shorten the product cycles and smooth the curve of product improvement. In this environment we can iterate based on a constant stream of customer actions.
However, innovators from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs have offered their perspective on customer feedback and Seth Godin’s archives include advice on taking customers too literally. He reminds us
The biggest danger is the customer might actually like it — and then you get New Coke.
You can’t be a perfectionist but the first product should embarrass you only after you learn from customers and release a far better version, not before. If you are embarrassed prior to release, you could have done better with the time and resources available.
Lean-washing is not hard to detect and here are some symptoms you can look out for:
Product vision and refinement has been replaced by random test and repeat
Iteration does not answer a specific question
User feedback is general, conflicting and taken at face value
Consumer data is not studied or actionable
The team spends more time talking about lean start-up methodology and best practices than it takes to crank out an MVP at other companies
Customers (and the data they generate) are there to help us validate or disprove specific assumptions on the path toward a defined vision. Testing and learning without a specific direction is a waste of time. Keith Nowak recently wrote a very thoughtful post-mortem of Imercive and described the start-up development process as running down a series of dark alleys.
Getting through the dark alleys before it is too late requires concerted dedication to going through the process of attempting, learning, and correcting as quickly as possible.
A start-up is a race against the clock and the value of disciplined execution is supreme.
Based on my own experience building things that people will buy, I do not believe customers should be asked to teach what product development skill, marketing acumen, market insight and entrepreneurial gut already know. At best, customers can react to your product and tell you what they think they want, but it is the entrepreneur’s job to understand what they mean and execute fast enough to build what they need.
In every product development and marketing decision we make, the last question should be what does the consumer think of this and is this confirmed by their behavior data. The problem with lean-washing is you ask the consumer first and in many cases the vision is lost in the echo chamber of consumer queries, buzzwords and un-analyzed data.