There is a category of consumer referred to as the early adopter, who is the person who wants to be the first to get their hands on a new product even if it’s not quite perfect yet, just to be at the front of the pack. I like to get my mind on to a new idea or product early – I don’t know whether its impatience or cheapness, but my hands are happy to wait til its proven worth it – but if there is a pack, then I’ve been known to become hypercritical and dismissive for no reason other than its popularity. It happened with the Harry Potter books, which I deeply regret; it happened with Facebook, which I do not.
In that sense, The Lean Start-up has a number of strikes against it. Firstly, it’s a business book – worse, a book about entrepreneurship – an industry with quite the track record of producing books to justify book tours and which make money by telling us that they made money and from whom they made it, rather than actually adding to the useful knowledge base. Second, its origins are in the tech industry: see first. Third, the author’s background is in programming, and the dustjacket says he takes a “scientific approach” to “reduce uncertainty” around start-up creation, auguring well for readability. Finally, it was a huge success, flying off and on to bookshelves depending on whether you were reading an article about retail sales or What-I’m-Reading lists when it was released in 2011.
So it would also be fair to say I brought a fair amount of baggage to my first read. It would also be fair to say the experience fell very much at the Harry Potter end of the spectrum, both in my delight at its simple genius and in the number of times since I’ve dipped back into it.
Which brings me to my top five (which, interestingly, it also proving a little Harry-Potterish, proving that a good read is a good read, but I digress)
- it is seriously well written. Not wanting to go all Jennifer Byrne on you (would that I could), but its language is clear and conversational without being patronising; its structure subtly encourages progression, both within and between chapters; and there’s a lot of practical stories of both success and failure told without having to fall back on self-aggrandisement.
- it is frank regarding the fundamental need to be explicit regarding assumptions – all the assumptions, not just the comfortable ones – and to then prioritising them based on risk and not how interesting they are, and to then design experiments to test those assumptions in a way that will enable the learnings to be validated. And that this testing is at least as important as any other part of the development process, if not more so, because,
- it acknowledges that we need to start measuring our productivity and activity in this space differently: to quote Mr Ries,
If we’re building something that nobody wants, it doesn’t much matter if we’re doing it on time and on budget
- it adapts and adopts ideas, techniques and strategies that have succeeded in other fields for its own purposes. Originality is great, but if something has been proven and delivered benefits to other industries/activities/[insert noun here], and one can see a parallel to the activity in question, doesn’t it make sense to at least consider applying it to your own context instead of insisting on re-inventing the wheel? There are a host of parallels in the Measure chapters with techniques tried and tested by the advertising industry, most notably Split A/B testing, and advertising worked out okay from the 20th century. One can almost track a nutshell version of the evolution of car manufacturing industry across that period woven explicitly into the text. Granted, this concept is at the heart of Your Commercial Foundations, so that it ranking high on this list shouldn’t be too much of a surprise – it’s always nice to see someone you respect take the same point of view as you. But there’s a reason this concept is the ethos of YCF: it works. Borrowing from another industry/activity/whatever helps people understand – it gives them a bridge to traverse from what they know to what they are prepared to try and, Hollywood aside, most people prefer their bridges to be robust and not rope.
Which brings us very nicely to number 1. In my enthusiasm, I was doing a Lean Start-up rave to a friend who used to work in and consult to the manufacturing industry, and he was dismissive, calling it nothing new, that manufacturing has been doing it for years. But that’s my final reason – because it’s not new, and it’s proven for years but Mr Ries’s genius is to have applied it – and applied it well, through a combination of broad definitions, analogies, logic and actual, irrefutable experience – to people and things that many would generally say can’t be predicted or managed, and are therefore exempt from standard business wisdom.
And in this one way, Mr Ries opens up a whole new world both to those who insist they are not creative, and to those who are stuck in the paralysing loop of development perfection – safely developing with whiteboards and models until the idea is exactly what they envisioned and can be revealed to the world, which will fall over itself with admiration or acceptance. But unless it’s what the world thinks it needs – whether the world in question consists of funders, legislators, investors, end-users, colleagues, or actual, part-with-cash consumers – all one will learns from that entire effort done that way is how to fail. Which is why:
- It offers us wieldable tools – a series of stents, if you like – which can be placed in the arteries of Australia’s innovation system which will improve the circulation of ideas and innovations throughout all the organs of Australia’s innovation system and avoid the looming cardiac infarction promised by low collaboration and uptake rates. Not because of massive numbers of start-ups that will suddenly be formed and functional. But by the application of Lean Start-up principles across our knowledge industries to increase uptake of ideas and innovations by policy, by industry transformations, by process simplification and efficiencies, and yes, by start-ups and exploitation of intellectual property rights.
Of course, that assumes we actually wield those tools, and not just admire them on our bookshelf….