Free Your Mind

Giff Constable design, startups, UI/UX

A core concept in “lean startup” is that validated learning needs to be your initial measure of progress, not deliverables of other kinds. However, I suspect that many people struggle to internalize this and fully put it to work.

Learning doesn’t feel like traditional measures of success. It’s not a line up and to the right; it’s not a successfully shipped deliverable; it’s not three new sales; it’s not something you can raise money on (VCs don’t really count learning as results). It’s also hard for some leaders to crack the veneer of confidence, and admit that they don’t know the answers.

It also doesn’t help that learning is so damn fuzzy. You are having to make guesses and use your best judgment along the way.

This can be particularly tricky for teams that are in scaling/execution mode on an existing business where other metrics have long superseded learning as measures of success. To innovate and extend into new areas, the team needs to put itself back in “early stage startup” mode.

However, it is worth it because innovation is so fraught with failure. Learning is necessary to increase your odds of success.

Once you fully embrace and respect learning as a goal, it frees you up to be so much more nimble. And once you start practicing lean learning, you get better at it, more comfortable with smaller, focused experiments, and more disciplined/ruthless with yourself.

I spent some time yesterday with a potential client who wanted to expand into a new area. They were resource constrained, so needed help creating an initial product, starting with a feature-minimal but functional version that would take 6 to 8 weeks to create.

When I pushed them on their goal for the MVP, they acknowledged that learning was their primary driver: they wanted to test urgency in the market and the efficacy of SEM and other marketing channels. They wanted to understand customer behavior and motivations. They knew that they were going to get some things wrong.

First, I applaud them for thinking about starting with a minimal product, and caring about learning rather than just “making success”. But with an multi-week design and dev cycle based on their minimal list of features, they were arguably still thinking in terms of deliverables and traditional signs of progress.

If the goal was really to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, then all of their questions could be tested in even lighter, faster ways.

They could start with landing pages matched with a keyword campaign, interview potential customers over mockups, and prototype out a live but ultimately “fake” version of the site without working data feeds. With these actions, they could start learning from customers in days rather than many weeks, and *then* start the more expensive process of building a real application armed with a lot more information.

Of course, explaining all of this might have talked me out of a cool project, because they can do these lightweight things themselves, but that’s ok. My goal isn’t to be a consultant, it’s just a way to have fun and keep busy while I interview around.

Practice, Not Theory
If you are looking for a way to practice these concepts, one of the most intense and fun ways to do it is via Lean Startup Machine’s weekend bootcamps. I’ve mentored at all the NYC events, and have learned a ton myself from watching the teams in action. It’s amazing how much you can learn in just a weekend when you make validating assumptions your true goal.