The Post-Lean Era

by Giff on October 28, 2014

Stuart Eccles, CTO of Made By Many and early adopter of lean startup, half-seriously announced the other night after a few beers that we were entering the post-Lean-Startup era.

At first I thought he was referring to something we’ve discussed many times: the pendulum has swung a little too far towards lean testing and could use more respect for vision and intuition.

But Stuart was asking a different question: what is the next thing that moves the needle?

When we all added lean startup / customer development to our repetoires, it was a big leap forward. It had a meaningful impact on product success rates and wasted effort. To some of us, it now feels like table stakes. Those of us in the business of creating ambitious new products are hungry for the thing to build on top and take us even further.

My question, which I suspect might be along the same lines of what Stuart is thinking, is this: “where does great vision come from?”

In Eric Schmidt’s recent presentation “How Google Works”, there is a sentence on how to create a strategic foundation: “create superior products based on unique technical insights”.

I actually disagree with this as too limited.

I think opportunity emerges from change — changes in technology, markets, and/or customer behavior. Change starts with technology breakthroughs, but also comes from the consequences of those break throughs. For example, many of the Internet startup successes from the last 5 years are business model or service/experience innovations, rather than technology innovations. But they were made possible by technical breakthroughs.

Startups often get created because a founder has a personal pain point to solve, and is willing to “question received ideas and rethink business from scratch” (Peter Thiel). In other words, they don’t know what is impossible.

The phrase “timing is everything in startups” is really about whether changes have occurred that allow the impossible to become possible.

The trick is that you can’t wait to know that the impossible is now possible, because others will fill the void before you get there. That’s capitalism at work. So you need to leap before things are a sure bet. Lean startup then comes into play to help you steer and minimize waste.

Bigger companies need to institutionalize this opportunity finding. They can’t wait for personal pain points. But observing or predicting change is not enough, otherwise we would see more innovation and less buzz coming from the cool hunters.

My belief is that effective opportunity finding comes at an intersection point of several capabilities and mentalities: business strategy, design thinking, understanding/generation of scientific/engineering breakthroughs, and a scrappy “hack the impossible” makers attitude.

Lean Startup has helped cross-functional teams figure out how to attack ideas. I think a next breakthrough comes from how we find ideas. And in lean startup fashion, we at Neo are trying to combine vision and experiments to see if we can solve for it.

p.s. related to all this is how you operationalize working through your ideas

These are raw notes for an opinion piece on how to structure an “innovation” group. Comments very welcome.

You’re a senior executive. You know “software is eating the world” and you have to embrace technology and disruption more aggressively. How do you approach it?

If you are gunning for sustaining innovation (i.e. optimizations and extensions to your current business), then you should not create an innovation group but rather build experimentation capabilities into your current operational units.

However, if you want to push the envelope further and work on ideas that are truly new business lines for your company, I recommend sandboxing a “New Business Studio” that can take a staged, portfolio approach.


  • What: create an “internal studio” approach, which seed-funds many ideas, kills many if not most, and has the financial resources to stage-gate funds the ones that succeed.
  • Mission: create new revenue streams that benefit from the existing foundation, but are not necessarily tied to it
  • Values and Methods:
    • value speed of learning and iteration
    • value both evidence and judgement
    • hire only A players who fit the mandate
    • be capital efficient (scale only when it is justified)
    • don’t insist that every idea look big or get big right away
    • kill mediocre ideas and double-down on promising ones
    • don’t pursue something unless we have the right team for it
    • use modern tools and techniques
    • sandbox from organizational rules and bureaucracy
    • be transparent within the team and with the broader organization
    • respect the organization as partners
    • be humble, because there will be a lot of failure
  • Requires: patience for a 5 year horizon for things to get to scale (note: VC fund lives are typically 10 years, and if you examine the true lifespan of most successful startups, they always take longer than popular perception / media stories portray)
  • Budget: the core team will probably cost up to $3M a year once it is fully up and running, not counting follow-on funding to scale ideas
  • Portfolio Funding: you have to choose whether you do follow-on funding with a dedicated pool of money, not unlike a VC fund, or whether you fund on an ad-hoc, as-proven basis. The former might be necessary to safeguard the funds.

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Innovation: to sandbox or not to sandbox?

by Giff on October 3, 2014

Adrian Howard has a great talk on enterprise innovation up from the last Lean UX conference. In it, he is very down on sandboxed innovation groups. I actually both agree and disagree with him.

I think sustaining innovation must be done within existing operational groups, and agree with many of the things Adrian recommends: training on customer development and related ways of thinking, balanced teams that add more “makers” and people who actually talk to real customers, carving out more time for experiments, and being more forgiving of experiments that don’t work.

However, I don’t think that will actually solve for disruptive innovation, or help a company being disrupted figure out how to reinvent itself.

For disruptive innovation, I think a sandbox is absolutely critical, albeit with communication with and respect for the rest of the organization. Existing operational groups are too far in the weeds of what the business currently is. They need to keep the revenue coming in the door. They need different kinds of planning. And critically, they also will not be able to bear the inevitable failure rates that comes with more radical innovation.

I’m talking about emotion.  Most people are not, and should not be, entrepreneurs. It takes a certain kind of crazy and and a deep amount of resilience.

Adrian is absolutely right that a sandboxed innovation team should not be viewed as a savior or “sexy”. Hell no. They are going to fail most of the time. Their ideas will seem dumb (until they are not).  It will take years to figure out which ideas are actually worthwhile. Culturally, it is far better off starting out with massive humility, rather than the opposite.

Predicting Failure from Failure?

September 18, 2014

Shane Snow’s new book Smartcuts is is a master class in weaving anecdotes together to make a point in an interesting way. He’ll take A, add B, weave in C, to get you to D. I’ll write more on the highly enjoyable book later, but the tricky part is if one component in the mental […]

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Announcing Talking to Humans (new book!)

September 16, 2014

At the beginning of the year, Frank Rimalovski, who runs New York University’s Entrepreneurial Institute, came to me with a challenge.  While they used my old blog posts on customer development tips and anti-patterns, and they had some videos from Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad program, but students were still struggling with how to test their […]

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Favorite quotes from Creativity Inc.

September 5, 2014

I’ve been obsessed with Pixar for a while, and I’ve never marked up a business book like my reading of Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc. I looked on the Kindle website today and realized that I marked 63 passages in the book last May. I had previously posted favorite quotes from Pixar alumni. Here are […]

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Startup Marketing Is Dead. Long Live Startup Marketing

August 26, 2014

Marketing has become a dirty word in some startup circles, with the name of the day now being “growth hacking.” And frustrations over traditional marketing’s failures to adapt to a new hyper-connected, hyper-communicative world are valid. But demand generation is as important as ever. Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder of Flickr and founder of Slack, understands […]

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How Not to Design a Mobile App

August 18, 2014

Noah Lichtenstein of Cowboy Ventures recently posted an article to TechCrunch, “What Studying Students Teaches Us About Great Apps“. In their survey of 1,000 high school and college students, they asked about existing mobile usage, and then they asked the question, “if you had a magic wand to create an app that you would use […]

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Be Suspicious of Metrics

June 25, 2014

People love metrics. I love metrics. I love getting arguments out of opinion and into data. However, I’m also deeply suspicious of metrics, especially since I focus on new products and thus live in a world of constant change and evolution. Some points of discussion: New Employees I have new employees join and ask “what […]

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Does Occulus Mean That VR Is Finally Here?

March 29, 2014

Occulus Rift and better immersion rigs have allowed the promise of virtual worlds to rear its head again. Raph wrote a great post the other night, and I feel compelled to weigh in as well. Once upon a time, I was a near-expert in the space, obsessing about it from 2004 to 2008. I was […]

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