Legacy Blog

Why I’m not teaching the Lean Startup anymore

In the last twenty years, a plethora of models and tools have emerged whose aim is to help innovators to design, develop and distribute a new product while minimizing the risk of failure. Among these: IDEO’s Design Thinking, the Job-to-be-Done theory by Tony Ulwick and Clayton Christensen, Steve Blank’s Customer Development and Eric Ries’s Lean Startup. Just to mention some of the most popular ones.

All these frameworks share a fundamental aspect: they are inspired by the scientific method. This means that the idea of a new product is validated through very short work cycles (iterations) of experimentation. These cycles follow a sequence that moves from hypothesis to testing, data collection and ends with the validation of the hypothesis.

At the same time, the various approaches differ on one crucial aspect: how the initial idea is generated. Methods like design thinking and jobs-to-be-done are need-first, meaning that they start from the analysis of the needs of the user, and based on these discoveries, they ideate solutions. Customer development and lean startup, instead, are idea-first; this means that they start from the assumption that the entrepreneur has an idea that needs to be investigated further. Both methods aim to validate whether or not the idea solves the customer’s need.

Lean startup and all the idea-first approaches have become extremely popular in both literature and practice. Scholars and practitioners who follow this paradigm believe that the key to successfully innovating is the ability to generate a large number of ideas and testing them. Most of them will fail, but eventually few will survive, and maybe among these ones, there will be a unicorn/epic win.

I personally tried first hand most of the lean startup approach and I can testify that they require a lot of luck and often turn out to be ineffective.

If you start from an idea without first having done any research on the unmet needs of the potential customer, it is very likely that you end up working on a fantasy, wasting time and money. This is the risk of those who approach the creation of a product using only the lean startup principles; they will dive into the development of a minimum viable product looking for a validation and, many times, will artificially find what they are looking for.

I have seen many startups walking this path. I myself made the same mistake: more than once I started a project with the illusion of knowing the target market, of knowing what were the needs of the potential customers and having the right solution in mind. Alas, I haven’t walked a long path. This is why I am convinced that the need-first approaches – if developed in the correct way, are much more effective than the idea-first ones, including lean startup.

In the class of Digital Product Design that I teach at Roma Tre University, I stress the work of discovery through interviews, ethnography, and empathy, and I’m progressively abandoning the concept of a minimum viable product since I find it too fuzzy and ambiguous to be taught to students.

When I started working with my co-founder Alessandro Zonnino at the syllabus of the Innovation School of Rome, I adopted the same approach. To explain how to move from an idea to a product, we outlined a structure composed of four modules, that will guide students from the analysis of their potential customers to the development of a pre-product:

  • Understand and ideate: during this module, students will learn to observe, empathize and analyze their potential customers, with the clear goal to develop ideas that solve real needs;
  • Prototype and test: through this module, students will learn how to design and develop tests and prototypes to investigate the ideas they decided to work on;
  • Influence and nudge: we will teach how to use persuasion techniques coming from behavioral science, with the goal to improve the customer experience;
  • Pre-product: lastly, students will learn how to plan the first commercial version of their product (which is not a trivial landing page) and define the requirements in terms of human and financial resources.

We haven’t just designed an educational experience to teach how to create a product starting from the needs of the customers rather than the ideas of the innovators. Being strong supporters of the eat your own dog food principle, we also decided to apply our syllabus to the design of isRome itself.

Even if we think we know how to teach to make innovation, we have decided to start from scratch and this week we started a cycle of interviews.