Working as a product designer, creative entrepreneur and consultant - I'm deeply familiar with a need to keep asking questions, learning and shifting your perspective in order to stay in a nimble dance with possibility and connection. Recently, I've experienced an unexpected renaissance while weaving Lean Startup and product design concepts and methodologies more deeply into my work. I'll catch you up with the basics and then share some of the specific Lean concepts that provide constant inspiration and insight for my work.
Lean Startup has been percolating for many years and has only really gained bigger traction in the past 2 years. Steve Blank's work beginning in 2004 in customer development as a way to turn management and company building on it's head was the beginning of this cycle. Shifting from long cycle development with a lot of advance work to first determining if you have a problem that has a big enough market to create a company around AND that your solution to that problem is one that your customers would actually buy.
And how do we determine these things? We "get out of the building" and talk to the nice people - gathering insights and working to find problem/market fit and then product/market fit.
Then one of his early students, and an entrepreneur ready to try new ways of running startups, Eric Ries, wrote a blog post and then eventually a book about using "Lean Startup" methodologies. Inspired by waste reduction and collaborative techniques from The Toyota Way, Steve Blank's Customer Development approach and the small incremental releases championed by Extreme Programming he created AND tested a framework that allowed him to run Build - Measure - Learn loops more quickly.
By using methodologies that allowed him to create and try many options, measure their validity, and then to be able to decide whether to shift to new hypothesis or continue to expand on the previous - he was able to begin creating repeatable process that allowed for exploration while still keeping the car on the road via small turns of the wheel made in context.
Building off of that work we have literally hundreds of amazing people expanding the Lean concepts in all directions. Alexander Osterwalder created a Business Model Canvas to support the creation of a single-page, easy-to-validate picture of your business. Ash Maura shifted things toward early stage development in Running Lean - with the Lean Canvas, Problem/Solution interview templates and a great story of how he uses it in his day-to-day. We have all the work across Agile, Continuous Development and Kanban for ways to manage teams and development process. Now we have Lean UX (process to support design and collaboration efforts), Analytics and Product Design to expand how we work across the spectrum of job titles, development processes and company sizes.
It's powerful to be in the middle of all of this creativity, collaboration and learning.
Practice, practice, practice
Over the past few months I've been developing a series of workshops that use Lean methodologies to support individuals, small business and non-profits in the development of their products and services. The most difficult and intriguing workshop has become a Portfolio Prototyping course that allows creative entrepreneurs, career switchers and new entrants to the market to use Lean methods to create Minimum Viable Portfolios. Portfolio is meant to be descriptive of anything we build to interact with customers - in this case the people that hire us.
It's been shocking to see how fast this process has allowed me and my fellow participants to learn. Out of that learning a few patterns have started to emerge that have helped me design and iterate my own products while also helping those coming from more "traditional" design to understand some of the advantages that using Lean methodologies might provide.
Do to Learn
While some research, planning and design is necessary to developing our products and services - it's easy to hide behind these tasks in order to avoid having to start. In order to overcome our natural inertia - it's important to keep ourselves in the habit of stepping into courageousness and beginning - again and again - our focused interaction and building as quickly as we're able.
So often, being able to DO process at all IS what needs to be validated. Only one way to figure that one out.
Build to Connect and Listen
A common misconception is that building is only about creating a UI. One of my favorite parts of creating Minimum Viable/Saleable/Delightful Experiments is that I can work across any part of my business and try any sort of doing or building as long as it allows me to connect with customers and to learn from that interaction. This also gets at the idea that we're never done with our customer development - we're never done being able to learn and gain insight and datapoints from customers and our fellow collaborators.
Getting out of the building, our head, and our assumptions is a full-time job.
From "Genius Designer" to Genuine Facilitator & Collaborator
This little gem is one of the most difficult shifts for designers and developers coming from more traditional environments. While it's deeply valuable to be able to "deliver the design solution" and to create and build wireframes, mockups and prototypes, it's also become invaluable to be able to facilitate collaborative process with the entire team. Particularly with small teams that need to cover a lot of ground, it's critical (and a key tenet to Lean) to collapse the hierarchy and incorporate all of the talents and smarts of your team to accomplish your development.
As I like to say, "Together we have a full neuron."
Adapt and Adopt
In the past, my penchant for improvisation and customization for context in the process that I run has been a struggle for some of my clients. Now, my collection of process from across many different sectors and methodologies has become a truly unique value for my business. While I do adopt a light framework to help us stay on track - I rarely run or suggest the same process for different clients.
The key to this game is that you collect as many types of process from as many different sources to share as a collaborator in your Lean team and also to make sure you only keep the process that actually works. If your Lean Canvas is letting you explore almost all of your open questions - great. If not, try crossing things out and shifting them. I'll show you this in another post as I iterate for my workshops.
Repeatable process is what you're after as you improvise and adapt your workflows and culture.
This tenet covers a lot of ground in Lean. As we attempt to speed up our cycles of Build - Measure - Learn one of the keys to success is to discover repeatable process. This means we need to be willing to throw out process that really doesn't work and is weighing us down. It also means we do much less planning and documentation. We might switch to whiteboard sessions rather than wireframes. We choose self-documenting process (the deliverable is the result of the process). We plan, research and design out in front of a couple of 2-week sprints rather than a few months. We develop in designer-programmer pairs.
This concept also extends into the highly misunderstood and abused word "Minimum" in the way we create our experiments and builds. Yes, they have to be viable, but we all struggle with finding the smallest way to test our assumptions. Sometimes, because of your resources or lack of knowledge, minimum may mean doing deeply unscalable things like "concierge" 1-on-1 process with our customers.
Everyone has both "Big Picture" and "Here and Now"
As a traditional designer, there are often times when you're handed the "business rules" that you're designing against. Stakeholder interviews are all about collecting that information. In Lean, it's becoming much more prevalent to empower the ENTIRE team by allowing them to collaboratively develop the business plan (perhaps using Business Model Canvas or Lean Canvas) for the project or company. In my work with individuals and small businesses this is a powerful way to quickly clarify the confusion points and allow the unaligned unspoken assumptions to become visible.
To communicate and make sure everyone is on the same page for the here and now you'll often see walls of Lean organizations filled with radiators showing current metrics, values, personas (customer prototypes) and experiment or process tracking boards. Make sure you're reducing waste across all of this process and only keep those elements present that you use and reuse in your day-to-day.
Discriminate. Decide what the biggest risk is and go after it.
So much of our work in creating in conditions of high uncertainty is being courageous in trying things, guessing and eventually learning enough so that we can discriminate and guess better. One of the toughest lessons that I see for myself and my clients is honing in on what the biggest risk really is and then bravely stepping in on it.
The reason this is such a big challenge is that these kind of blocks and risks are the types of things our brain is trained to keep us away from. A huge part of the do to learn process is allowing us to begin retraining our brain to move beyond leaping from unconscious assumption to unspoken assumption in our work. Instead, we work to create a kind, curious observer that learns more about the reality of the situation we're creating in.
So, those are the biggest inspirations for me from my work in Lean right now. What are yours?