Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Becoming a Lean Thinker - Part 1

"Everything that I know about marketing, about business, and about life... is wrong."

That was the gut-wrenching, head-spinning thought that was running through my head, just minutes into a presentation by Eric Ries, an experienced developer and author of The Lean Startup. I was sitting in the conference room of U of T's Rotman School of Management on a chilly September afternoon, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with aspiring business-types and veteran entrepreneurs, and I felt like I was going to be sick. With no barf bags in sight, I sucked it up, took a deep breath, and listened. And my mind was subsequently blown.

That was the day that I began my transformation into a Lean Thinker. Which is kind of funny - ironic, even - because being a Strategic Planner is, in essence the opposite of being a Lean Thinker. Planning is about upfront research and investigation, the distillation of insights into calls-to-action, and about testing - testing to oblivion - to ensure that an execution will perform when it's live in the marketplace. It's about prediction, assumptions, and not necessarily about being accountable for whether or not they were true. To be a Lean Thinker, however, is to be an experimenter. It's about upfront execution and learning, taking action, and testing products and messages in market from the get-go. It's not about prediction, it's about validation, and retaining the flexibility to scale once you've learned what's true, what works, and how to optimize. Quite frankly, it's a wholly different approach than what I'm used to, and what the marketing and advertising industry is used to.

Where did this approach begin? Its origins can be traced back to concepts from the manufacturing industry in Japan, with its mantra of Kaizen ("continuous improvement"), as well as methods pioneered by the Toyota Motor Company - like Lean Manufacturing (using flexible and adaptable machines) and the Just-in-time delivery of auto-parts (bringing them into the manufacturing process only when they are necessary). You can also find its forebears in software development (Agile), Design Thinking, and even Direct Marketing. Regardless, Lean Thinking has now taken over the entrepreneurship and Startup space - which encourages people to take the Lean approach when building a technology-centric business.

At its core, Lean Thinking is a philosophy, an approach, that changes how products are built and launched, how marketing campaigns are brought to market, and even how you can live your life. In his book, Ries summarizes it as "an extremely fast cycle time, a focus on what customers want (without asking them), and a scientific approach to making decisions." I would distill it down to one word - "learning". To me, becoming a Lean Thinker has meant a strict devotion to the idea of continuous learning, based on actions and experiments in the real world, and using feedback to progressively improve products, campaigns, and ultimately, you.

But wait... how did I eventually overcome my initial sickness, my pain-inducing rejection of the idea? In the next three parts of this month's series, "Becoming a Lean Thinker", I'll walk you through the three core concepts of Lean Thinking that won me over, and why
The Lean Startup book isn't being used as my coaster. Those concepts are:
  • Reducing the Feedback Cycle
  • Going from MVP to Scalability
  • The Eternal Experimenter
Stay tuned! :)

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