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Make the best out of Lean Startup

Updated: May 14, 2020

For many entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs-to-be, the Leans Start-up methodology introduced by Eris Ries has been an eye opener and an inspiration. Reading through it, I found that arguments used and the approach proposed makes perfect sense. In case you haven’t read it yet, the core of it is validating your idea with the minimum investment necessary; it reckons that too often businesses put a lot of time and resources in building products which fail the market test when finally presented to consumers (as Eric Ries puts it the question is not "Can this product be built?"; instead, the question is "Should this product be built?”).

As intuitive as this method may be, in practice however there are several things to watch out for. Some refer to them as limitations of the method whilst I believe they can be managed as long as you are acknowledging them and taking the right steps in this direction.

1. More testing is not necessarily equivalent to more learning (or valuable insights)

The results of testing can be contra intuitive or contradictory with direct feedback from clients. Here what can help is learning to conduct meaningful client interviews as users might not be consciously aware of what motivates them to accept a product/service or not. What you ask and how you ask it makes a difference. Similarly, the information contained in the feedback received goes beyond its content; the choice of words and non-verbal clues can convey useful information. By acknowledging this and acting on it, one would have a better understanding of what motivates the client, what the client profile should be, how to position the product/service, what the client’s values and beliefs are etc. As a result, testing can be conducted more meaningfully and contradictory results will be avoided.

What is more, this will come handy in reducing the risk of prematurely dismissing an idea.

2. Testing fatigue

Efforts taken to validate ideas can tire up a team. For managing this risk, steps taken should include:

  • Clear definition of what the vision, mission and values of the company are.

  • Ensure that the team is congruently believing in the vision of the company. This keeps the team motivated along the way and helps in maintaining an outcome-oriented mindset. The ability to see beyond the current project and focus on the end-mission is empowering in itself and helps the team put their resources to use and make the best of arising opportunities. You might have heard of the stonecutter allegory which tells the story of three men working on a cathedral: the first was grumping whilst working and when asked what he as working on, he replied that he is cutting stone; the last was happily working on the same site and when asked what he is doing he said “ I am building a cathedral”. To put this differently, “if you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery).

  • Understand your team – many companies will require a mix of skills and is not uncommon that this will bring together very different personalities. Indeed, depending on their personal traits some people will be more suited (i.e better performing and more comfortable) in certain jobs than others. However, when working together we need to be able to overcome these personal differences and speak a common language. For this, we need to learn to recognise what differences each team member and adjust our communication accordingly so as to avoid conflicts, silos, misunderstandings, confusions, delays etc. Collaboration requires building on each members’ strengths as well as motivating each individual in a meaningful way. Regarding the latter, entrepreneurs are often times people with a moving toward motivation pattern and they might automatically assume that everybody else is; however, there are people who are unconsciously more motivated by avoiding something undesirable. To give a factual example, one might motivate somebody by stressing that “we are working towards increasing market share or sales” whilst for others it might work better to stress that “ we have to avoid another quarter with losses or disappointing investors or else we can loose their support”.

3. Oversimplifying or misusing the five Whys Method

This problem solving technique implies asking “Why?” repeatedly in order to uncover the root source of the problem at hand. Whilst this process can be helpful in restating problems or tracing down possible solutions, for this to happen it is important to ensure that:

  • You are discussing the “right” problem. That is, before starting questioning for causes, one has to define the issue at hand clearly and as factual as possible. This implies avoiding generalization and ensuring that who ever reads it can understand what is refers to specifically. Eg “Not enough follow-up on clients’ emails” is different from “In 50% of the cases, clients were contacted after more than 24hrs. In 30% of the cases the issues brought up by the client (despite being resolved) were not escalated internally so that to avoid recurrences etc”.

The founders of Neuro linguistic Programming (NLP) have put together a very practical way of managing these linguistic “risks” known as the Meta Model. By adopting this model, one learns to recognise certain words as “red flags” and can then ask the relevant questions to find out the presumptions behind those words. For example, seeing reference to “not enough” would prompt questions such as “not enough compared to what?”; “followup” would be addressed by asking “who is not following up and on what specifically?”

  • “Why” questions can be seen as blaming questions and can trigger a “defensive” mindset and steer the discussion towards excuses rather than promoting a productive debate. If the team has a strong enough rapport the damage can be averted. This implies not making such questions a daily practice and only save them for exceptional cases. Alternatively, seek to reformulate the questions by using “how” and “what” questions and keeping an outcome-oriented frame. Eg instead of “why are 50% of the clients contacted after more than 24 days” you can ask “how can we ensure that all clients are contacted within 24 hours?”

4. Deciding what to test for

To structure the process and risk chaotic testing always keep in mind that the whole scope of testing is validating your idea. For testing to be effective it is important to clearly define the most important pillars: Customer profile and Value proposition. For each of these you have to identify what are the key assumptions and subsequently, devising ways of testing them. To define key assumptions, it is important to take the time for an in-depth analysis and answer key questions such as:

  • - What would someone buy from you? What is unique about your product?

  • - What is your vision and who would be interested in it? Who would benefit from it?

  • - What are you trying to create for your customers? What is the win-win proposition?

  • - What is your passion and who shares it?

  • - How is your product relating to core human values?

  • - What behaviours do you want to influence with your product?

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