Monday, December 5, 2011

Becoming a Lean Thinker - Part 3

The "Becoming a Lean Thinker" Series is an account of your friendly neighbourhood Strategic Planner's transformation from a predictor to an experimenter - and my ongoing attempt to apply Lean Thinking to aspects of business, marketing, and even life!

Part 1 covered the beginning of my journey and Part 2 spoke to the benefits of "Reducing the Feedback Cycle". In Part 3, I'll walk you through the 2nd core concept that helped turn me into a Lean Thinking Machine - "Going from MVP to Scalability".

Going from MVP to Scalability

“The goal of the MVP is to begin the process of learning, not end it.”
Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

Big. Bold. Perfect. National. Mass! These are all words that are traditionally associated with what businesses want to achieve with their marketing and advertising campaigns. Every year, significant amounts of research, planning, strategizing, and creative resources are spent drumming up a game-changing campaign that will be unleashed into the market and take a business' audience by storm. Round upon round of creative testing is conducted in order to predict - and validate - that the campaign will become a success. Nothing less than perfection will do.

The same syndrome affects the workplace, too. We'll often find ourselves slaving away at a report, powerpoint deck, creative brief, and even an idea for a breakthrough campaign, without letting the powers that be get a glimpse of it before it is "ready". We make sure that our blood, sweat, and tears have been pumped into the work so that when it's finally ready to be revealed, in all of its glory, its perfection will melt away any doubt that our audience might have felt about the quality of our work.

But the best case scenario - accolades and instant success for what we've produced - rarely happens, does it? Often there is something minor that needs tweaking, but even more often there is something significantly wrong, or off, about what we've been working on. A red flag was caught, or a poor strategy or idea was called out, and now it's back to the drawing board to figure out what to do next...

Enter the idea of the MVP - "Minimum Viable Product". Producing an MVP - before a finished product, report, or campaign - helps us avoid the wasted time and effort that comes with working on something that our audience doesn't like - or want. In many ways, being a Lean Thinker is about getting products into the hands of actual, live customers - be it your boss, or your consumer - and basing your learning on real audience behaviour, in context.

What is an MVP, exactly? It is the thing - be it a message, idea, or product - that you can produce with the minimum amount of time and effort in order to test a given hypothesis. In a nutshell, it means that you don't need to ideate and draw out the executions for an entire campaign before you're able to test whether your boss likes the idea itself and the campaign that surrounds it. A few pen strokes on a napkin can do that. Although the word "minimum" is a key part of an MVP, the word "viable" is important, too. You still need to build something that can stand on its own - like a complete idea or though, vs. half of one - before you can truly test out its potential.
"Instead of spending years perfecting our technology, we build a minumum viable product, an early product that is terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer-yes-really stability problems. Then we ship it to customers way before it’s ready. The minimum viable product lacks many features that may prove essential later on."
Building and putting an MVP into the hands of a live audience pushes us to test products, campaigns, or customer experiences in the field, in real-world situations, rather than just conceptually. And by thrusting our MVP into the real world - be it a grocery store or out boss' office - we're giving ourselves the chance to be surprised when our audience reacts and behaves in new and unexpected ways. We're giving ourselves the chance to learn as quickly and early as possible. Why should it take years to learn that the new product we invented is something that no one in the country wants? As Ries explains, "The level of learning [ from producing an MVP ] would have been the same, but our effort would have been dramatically less."

For marketers, and people in business, there is one aspect of the MVP that will be tough to get over: its apparent lack of "polish". Building a low-quality prototype - even an idea scrawled on a napkin - seems to go against our traditional views of quality. But, as Ries explains, "Discussions of quality presuppose that the company already knows what attributes of the product the customer will perceive as worthwhile." This might not necessarily be the case! Besides, "even a low-quality MVP can act in service of building a great high-quality product." The MVP is your chance to learn about what your customers - and your boss - care about. You must strive to "Remove any feature, process, or effort that does not contribute directly to the learning you seek." Worried about the impact of a live MVP on your company's brand name? Ries offers a solution: "Launch the MVP under a different brand name. Then do a public marketing launch once the product has proved itself with real customers."

The idea of an MVP isn't limited to just products, it can refer to markets - or "batches" - too. This idea is called “singe piece flow” in Lean Manufacturing, which simply means that each product is wholly built first before the next one. This is the opposite of the assembly-line, which attempts to efficiently product a slew of products, piece-by-piece, before any of them see the light of day. “Batch size” refers to how much work moves from one stage to the next at a time. The goal should be to keep the "batch size" as low as possible so that you can measure how a live audience reacts to a product without building hundreds of them. For example, rather than producing three different versions of a TV spot, why not test one of them in-market first?

Ries cautions, though, that when it comes to testing MVPs, not every kind of audience member will be as forgiving of its flaws. "The point is not to find the average customer," he says, "but to find early adopters: the customers who feel the need for the product most acutely. Those customers tend to be more forgiving of mistakes and are especially eager to give feedback.” And the best part of starting with an MVP first before putting in loads of effort? Once you learn what's working, you can put more effort into that aspect of it and make it grow, which is called "scalability". You can quickly work to expand its reach beyond early adopters and into the mainstream, as well as expanding its feature set or experience based on whatever worked best. In other words - once your boss approves of your napkin, you can go ahead and expand that idea into a campaign. ;)

Okay! We're gearing up for the last part of the "Becoming a Lean Thinker" Series, and the final part of my story. Here's what we've covered so far, and the last core concept of Lean Thinking that helped turn me into a believer:
  • Reducing the Feedback Cycle
  • Going from MVP to Scalability
  • The Eternal Experimenter

Stay tuned! :)

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