The Post-Lean Era

Giff Constable innovation, lean

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