Lameness of Lean

Giff Constable startups

I’ve got too many half-finished blog posts but I found myself on the train back from New York tonight thinking about some more recent criticisms of lean.

1. I was coming from a dinner hosted by a really interesting VC who had been a programmer and product lead for a long time. He said that his biggest criticism of lean was that it led entrepreneurs to think small, risking local maximas. It echoed a recent comment by angel investor Mark Birch that lean took people away from their passions, which I argued against the other day.

These comments are more about the entrepreneur than they are about “lean startup.” You have to lead with vision, and you have to stay where you are passionate (or get out of the way). Lean helps you reduce risk and reduce waste, but it can’t fill vision and passion that isn’t there. It won’t manufacture creativity. But there are countless “lean” entrepreneurs out there dreaming big audacious dreams, I guarantee it. They are just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

2. Then the other day I met with a really smart technologist who said he didn’t like lean because it was just about asking customers what they wanted, and customers don’t know what they want. I’ve written about this far too often. Lean customer development is about studying behavior, reading between the lines on people’s motivations, and turning conversations into learning experiments. The customer won’t tell you the solution, but they can certainly help you figure out if your hypotheses are stupid. Wouldn’t you want to pick up signs of this sooner than later?

3. Finally, I see parts of the UX community getting extremely defensive about lean. “We already do this!” And to a certain extent that’s true. You know what I say? Awesome — people are finally catching up to you. Maybe you’ll have a more strategic seat at the table. As Josh Seiden has repeatedly noted, the nice thing about lean is that it is successfully giving business, design and tech a common language around sensible concepts. The UX community should celebrate this. Really, I don’t give a damn what someone calls it as long as they are putting the good practices to work, but I also say that if you don’t think that Eric Ries has brought some good and additive thinking to the conversation, then you’re not being honest with yourself.

Finis. I came to lean after many years in early stage startups. I think there is too much waste in startup-land where people are chasing unrealistic dreams, and all those disappointments pain me. You can’t do early stage innovation without disappointments, but I do believe that you can purge a lot of wasted time and effort from the process. Us entrepreneurs are already somewhat lunatic for trying to innovate in the first place, so we might as well add a bit of sensibility to the process. Life is short. Be passionate, but be rigorous too.

What I like about all this is there is a debate. I don’t believe in getting religious about any way of thinking. Together we should poke and prod and collectively move forward the art and science of entrepreneurship.