The Lean Startup Meets The Real World

Lean: Promise And Problems

Lean startup is a blanket term covering a series of techniques and practices loosely modeled on the principles of lean manufacturing efficiency.  

Eric Reis, author of the penultimate book on the topic, sums it up this way: "The Lean Startup provides a scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers' hands faster."

The lean movement is great for the startup world.  It helps free us from the misconception that we must be visionaries.  It builds in a critical tolerance for learning, discovery and (to a degree) failure.  Rightfully, it prioritizes building the right thing over building a thing and forces entrepreneurs to hold themselves and their expectations accountable with falsifiable hypothesis.  Clearly defined experiments that push the ball forward consistently with the least amount of drag and damage are critical.

Concepts like pivot, minimum viable product and get out of the building (GOOTB!) have come to define how startups think - for for better and worse.

Take, for instance, a recent Venturebeat teardown of lean startup thinking.

Here's an interesting paragraph:

"No offense to Eric Ries, who’s coined some very corporate Bingo-worthy phrases now enmeshed in Silicon Valley culture (such as pivot, minimally viable product and continuous innovation), but there are a whole lot of things I think are wrong — dead wrong — with the entire concept. "

These points are equally valid.  As anyone working at a lean-minded company can tell you, when lean hits the real world the results often suck.  As the noted philosopher Mike Tyson once said: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

For all it's good intention and smartly designed thinking, lean poses some real problems when you try to hold yourself to the standard it sets.


Reality Is Pretty Messy

Lean can make it really hard to maintain a sense of vision or direction.  Are we learning?  What did we learn?  What did this experiment teach us? Should we "pivot?"  In the face of such an intense focus on learning, the will to do something can often take a back seat.  Building something of meaning is often not going to be easy to validate. 

Look at any serious success story and you'll see doubt and rejection tossed in the entrepreneurs' faces.  This alone makes the idea that you should be able to quickly validate everything you're doing in the real world seem pretty shaky.  If people really get it in 10 minutes, how deep can what you're doing actually be?

As noted in the Venturebeat piece, Lean also can make it easy to wear yourself out.  More than any other way of running your business, being lean can be a treadmill.  Do stuff, judge stuff and do more stuff.  Instead of longer cycles of deeper thinking and tactical bets, lean keeps the learning loop small, which means you're constantly reactive to yourself.  The hamster wheel becomes the next to-do list popping up before the first one is complete and the risk of - the worst lean sin possible - making decisions without properly interpreting data always hanging over your head, tiring you out. 

You may find yourself three months in, having launched five small ad experiments a week for 12 consecutive weeks with little to show for your time, but a lot of nebulous learning.  You'll spend a lot of energy launching and un-launching and very little time doing something you really, really need to be doing or care about.  This can be discouraging to any entrepreneur.

The last, and maybe biggest, issue lean has crossing the barrier from "blog post to real life" is that starting a company is really hard.   I mean really hard.  Nothing goes according to plan.  The days are never long enough and everything is messier than it should be.  Lean, with it's focus on tidy experiment boards, clean-cut processes with binary results and obvious next steps, does not necessarily merge well with the day-to-day reality of the small business owner. 

During which part of the morning-to-night craziness are you supposed to sit back and stare at your experiment board, absorbing all of the well-documented, proactively planned experiments you've run in optimal ways?  When does the lean process slow down long enough for you to have an epiphany from all the testing?  That doesn't really sound like any founder's experience that we've ever heard of. 

At the end of the day, lean is process heavy, output light and runs a high risk of distraction.  But - as I said earlier - it's also really good for startups, but you have to learn how to make it work.


Making It Work: Mindset Trumps Methodology

Making lean work in the real world is about understanding that "mindset trumps methodology."  It would be great if you had the time to run a neat, by-the-book lean stack process.  It would be even cooler if all your learning turned itself in to an easy to grok narrative that made your next steps clear.

Good luck with that.

What's important is "thinking" lean, even when executing lean is impractical. You don't need rigorous processes to think experimentally. 

What are you doing? 

What do you hope it will do?

If that happens, what's next?

If not, what are a few possible outcomes you can expect?

The more you can document it, the better.  You'll find using the lean approach to think through your problems offers immediate benefits.  You'll be less reactive; you'll have thought through possible outcomes more and you'll be more confident making decisions and trying more things to grow your business. 

You'll also find, especially when your team is small, that the more you try to turn lean thinking into lean process the more drag you'll create.  Lean is about trying a lot of things and seeing what works.

This is where lean gets real.  Think.  Be curious.  Proactively prove yourself wrong.  But, never let arbitrary process get in the way of what you need to be doing and never let one specific codified way of approaching problems be the standard or discourage you.

Lean is exactly what startups need, but it's a mentality - not gospel.