Eric Ries has done some seminal work with innovation and product development – a simplification and clarity sorely needed today. His work is powerful for a simplified process and approach that while the steps are minimal they are meant to be highly iterative versus purely linear where learning dominates and failure is a poorly chosen word. Here I write about part of the process that some are misinterpreting – Eric is from the software world and in materials the idea of MVP is being bastardized a bit. I’ll argue here it needs some tweaking, but not much. I’ll argue Eric has developed something bigger. Something I’ll call Lean Learning.

First, about the traditional product development approaches. They don’t work well for breakthroughs or for startups. In fact, they are in my opinion stunningly slow, destructive and resource devouring. Stage Gate and other processes are not seemingly iterative, do not involve learning so much and instead appear to most as a funnel of no return where these process become the goal versus delivering great products to customers effectively, efficiently and profitably.

In fact, I’ll argue that these processes seek an unrealistic nirvana of eliminating risk and assuring success. It’s about fear. It’s about managing fear. It’s bad.

Eric Ries’ concepts – very good, excellent. Like our group and its originators like Bernie Malofsky over 40 years ago with Adaptive Innovation’s beginnings at Loctite, it’s about fast, efficient and effective iterative learning that breeds success versus a minimization of failure.

Ad Eric writes at his website:

The second misunderstanding is a concern for what will happen if things turn out exactly as we originally predicted (namely, badly). Entrepreneurs, faced with an early defeat, might lose their commitment to seeing their vision through. I understand this fear. It is a direct consequence of the reality distortion field, that ability most visionaries have to get people to believe in a vision as if it was already true. Data can undermine this field. It’s easier to believe in a glorious future when you have only zeroes, for everyone: founders, investors, and employees.

But this fear is way overblown, in my experience. The great visionaries I’ve worked with can incorporate a commitment to iteration into their process. However, there are some important ground rules. As I wrote in Don’t Launch, it’s essential to remember that these early minimum viable product launches are not marketing launches. No press should be allowed. No vanity metrics should be looked at. If there are investors involved, they should be fully briefed on the expectation that these early efforts are designed to fail.

Again, even if they do “fail,” it is improbable that they will fail in the way we originally expected. In fact, in all of the startups I have worked with, I have never seen this happen. There is always something unexpected when customers react to a product in the real world: we thought they’d be offended by low quality, but actually they refused to download it; we thought they’d share it with their friends, but actually they wanted us to provide the friends; we thought they’d care a lot about our beautiful design, but actually they wanted more features. As in any experiment, the important thing is not the bare fact that the hypothesis was invalidated. More important is to understand the reasons why. This is not an academic exercise; the goal of these experiments is to immediately get up off the mat and design the next one. And the next, and the next, until we have not just learned but proved our learning with hard facts: through the attainment of validated learning.

Here’s our big add from Adaptive Innovation – The Lean Startup is really about Lean Learning. If so, while we agree it’s great to launch and learn, as many used to put it, and find pivots, it’s not always a very smart idea at all to launch a product at all to gain insight. It’s also not always about a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) – it could be the minimum viable idea (MVI?) or concept or the elements of a concept. P&G excels at testing concepts early and often and deeply. They wrote the book if you will. Steve Jobs and Apple excelled to a new level. This stuff is not new. Effectively “infecting” the entire firm with this attitude seemingly is.

Part of this new might be applying the Lean Startup process to a Lean Learning process within the entire firm’s culture, from it’s strategy and purpose in life, fit in the world as it’s evolving and the varied resource mixes one can utilize at any moment in time. To conduct Lean Learning, the firm and its members need to actively and persistently interact with the outside world not simply from a commercial standpoint but well before and after and everywhere functionally to the left and right to every stakeholder.

In application, this means not developing a new adhesive concept and making a product and selling it. That will not work. Instead, launch not the product but the concept before that to customer and stakeholders. Show them your little invention, the idea as it’s emerging. Apply Eric’s process, understand the potential competing pivots and make educated selections that minimize effort, resource consumption but validate learning to an inflection point in confidence and thus firm value.

Where we have done this with one firm’s adhesive concepts for wood bonding, the pivot came as we thought we could bond more reliably with a faster instant adhesive but the customer said the big deal also was eliminating water from emulsion adhesives that caused a lot of extra finishing steps down the line. This new found value became a marketing and product development focus that in the end was a huge winner for what became an award winning product Nexabond about to launch in most big-box stores under a new name via licensing this spring.

In another case study, with startup Sirrus, we found that working with early, very large potential customers and industry experts just with a tiny sample and an idea of a clean and green product that they could not care less about clean and green if it cost more. The Sirrus product? One firm had a twenty-minute meeting transform after the little demo into a five-hour corporate strategy meeting because our technology could cut costs by 30% and eliminate half or more of their lines globally and allow them by solvent elimination to sell all of their carbon credits. The massive pivot – we were an advanced manufacturing startup, not necessarily a clean and green one. The customer wanted the savings and increased capabilities. Saving owls? That was for the marketing guys to play with.

The additional learning? In a complex business like materials and manufacturing, especially in complex processes and highly regulated, secretive environments you cannot just say, ok, time to interview ten or a hundred customers. The customers here, from executives to a line engineer to a product developer may have no desire whatsoever to get a cold call from a some exploratory corporate or startup guy. They are busy. To answer well means divulging secrets. They don’t know you. No NDA without proof of interest. You are not a priority. The fear thing again too.

What to do? That’s the Lean Startup pivot to Lean Learning and Adaptive Innovation. One needs to persistently and constantly develop deep personal relationships not just with existing customers, experts and their supply chains but also with complimentary ones. By employing the Adaptive Innovation concepts of ever vigilant global trends monitoring coupled with developing insights using Lean Startup concepts, innovative ideas can constantly emerge and evolve and eventually deploy as products through existing invention assemblages. These deep personal relations dominate everything – it’s the human element that transcends any process or group of principles.

To this end, it’s critical that firms develop at all levels expert networks of their own that persist. It’s not just “customers” but often, when it’s early and secret, it’s about industry experts who present themselves not as always consultants, but as other options, like distributors, the customer’s customers, retailers, regulators, associations and on and on. Present concepts and evolving, emerging products to these highly varied audiences to seek a collection of pivot options and now you have something.

It’s not always about commercialization or even a secret, quiet launch. For the more complex and I bet even some software, it’s the idea, a piece of the idea, a demo of a piece. It about before you even have an idea – it’s understanding needs and the world we live in. It’s about people – the human element too – societies, cultures, families. It’s about science. It’s about what I’ll call Lean Learning.

 

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