When Lean, MVP and Customer Development Can Kill Your Product

American Colonel Stefan Garros has once combined four words into an acronym to create a new world that everyone is talking about today – VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). The VUCA concept is very attractive. After all, a changing, unstable, complex world, in which the usual cause-and-effect relationships are collapsing, is an ideal place for irresponsible creativity, where any failure can be attributed to the very volatility and unpredictability of the environment.

But what if you look at the concept with skepticism? Digitalization adepts usually say something like “communications are turning into digital, new interfaces appear, virtual reality is replacing real”. Yes, but what is it all for?

Fifteen years ago, we listened to mp3 music through players. Before them there were cassettes, and even earlier – reels. Today, streaming has already replaced all of this, as it is much more convenient. But what is streaming – in essence? Just a way to deliver music to our ears. Globally, we still just want to listen to the music we like, when we want to. Just like ten, twenty or a hundred years ago. The need remains the same. Only the form of its satisfaction has changed.

Another example. We used to listen to news on the radio and read newspapers. We are now reading the agenda on social networks and online media. We began to receive information faster, there is more of it, but the need for it has not changed. We still want to keep abreast of everything new. It is important for us to know what is happening around. The form has changed, but not the content.

And one more example. Previously, we communicated with friends by mail, then mail became electronic, then chats appeared, and now we have instant messengers. But the need to be in contact with our loved ones has not gone anywhere. And again the form has changed, but not the meaning.

Can we say that the VUCA world changes our desire to receive information, communicate with the loved ones or listen to music? Not at all! It only changes the form of meeting these needs. It speeds up, simplifies, gives the opportunity to choose, implements what we could not even imagine before. But besides the obvious benefits, it also gives rise to many new problems! Now there are too many choices. My music library is so huge that I didn’t hear even half of the music I have there. My news feed is half full of fakes and propaganda. Half – because I make an effort to filter it.

In addition to friends and acquaintances, boorish and cheeky sellers come to my messengers, believing that I need aerated concrete or a vacation with prostitutes. And these are the problems. Problems that new technologies have generated. Spawned this very VUCA-world. And they are also the keys to new products that startups will create at hackathons and workshops. And these new products will also solve some problems and create others. It’s just inevitable.

A whole culture of educating entrepreneurs is built on the search and solution of these problems. However, by focusing on the problems that we ourselves have created, have we forgotten the basics – the needs of our customers? About basic values, about quality? After all, hiding behind the flag of uncertainty, we legitimized a dangerous assumption – we allowed ourselves to make mistakes and experiment on the consumer, disclaiming responsibility for the success of our product.

Unfortunately, these are not my fantasies – I have attended many startup events, I have experience working as a tracker in a startup accelerator. And alas, we have to admit – instead of educating strong entrepreneurs, we encourage irresponsibility and unwillingness to bear responsibility for product failure due to a lack of entrepreneurial competencies. By allowing essentially random people to experiment on consumers, we seem to have completely forgotten that these consumers are paying us the money we live on.

And it all started with a Lean Startup idea.

Shallow graves for shallow products

Lean means frugal. Erik Rees, the creator of the concept, believes that lean means no unnecessary action that does not add value. At least, this is how this concept is interpreted in the Japanese concept of “lean manufacturing”, where the name comes from. In his book, Rees formulates a simple idea that most startups really liked:

When creating a product in the VUCA world, we can make mistakes anyway. And if so, let’s do it as cheaply and quickly as possible.

But then hell begins. Since everything around is changing rapidly, why then should we still pursue knowledge and experience? In the VUCA world, experience becomes obsolete faster than it accumulates, and so does knowledge. Nothing can be sure, so let’s put experiment at the fore and present our entire business as a set of hypotheses. We will move in small steps and focus on feedback from the market (this dance around customer feedback is called Customer Development).

In general, this whole approach is very similar to the movement of a toy car, which drives straight until it hits an obstacle or a cliff, and then turns around and drives in the other direction. This is called Pivot. But is it possible to use this car to go somewhere purposefully and far away?

And then there’s another obstacle called MVP – Minimum Viable Product. And in fact – a handicraft on the knee that’s supposedly solving the very “key problem” in the “minimum configuration”. Cheap and fast to develop, which sure results in the low quality. And with the help of this unfinished product, it is proposed to “test hypotheses” by keeping in touch with the market using a Customer Development methodology. But to generalize, most of these hypotheses boil down to answering a simple question – “Does the market need this?”

The problem is that the market accepts substandard products only when there are no alternatives. But are there many such markets where there is no competition at all?

And that’s where a key contradiction arises: in order to test a solution in the MVP format, you need to create a “blue ocean” with this solution – that is, your own market completely protected from competition, with its own rules of the game. Only there will we be forgiven for the lack of basic values, because the very idea of ​​basic values ​​has changed. However, it is impossible to do this, relying solely on feedback from the market.

The discovery of blue oceans is always preceded not only by the creation, but also by the rejection of some generally accepted advantages of the product. Disruptive innovative products are created contrary to market expectations. And in order to create something that’s going against the masses – and at the same time to succeed – you need to be an expert in your field. It is better to understand consumers than themselves. But is it possible to be an expert if you come to an interview to get acquainted?

Finding consumer characteristics that we sacrifice in favor of other characteristics is not the task of the client, but the product owner. And it is solved not by experiments on consumers, but by knowledge of market principles. That is, the entrepreneurial competence, which we declared as optional.

This is the problem. When we are Lean, we do not require competence from the people who create the products. We allow them to make mistakes, but by doing so we relieve them of responsibility for developing a quality product. You can collect the “best minds” into a team as much as you like, but responsibility for the product will not arise, because responsibility is just about the consequences. And in the Lean Startup paradigm, there are no consequences – just turnarounds (make a pivot!).

VUCA is a world of changing forms, but sustainable content. That is why it kills products that do not have this content, but only have a form – they are simply washed away like foam.

To use or not to use Lean, MVP and Customer Development?

The answer is resounding TO USE! But only after finding the meaning of your own product. And not instead of looking for meaning. It is impossible to find your own identity in someone else’s head. What makes a great product lies not in the market, but in the experience and vision of the entrepreneur who builds it. And responsibility for shaping this vision is the most important thing that a product owner should feel responsible for.

Understanding this, it is quite possible to apply product practices at work without fear that they will kill your product. More precisely, apply those parts of them that do not contradict common sense. After all, there is nothing wrong with prototype testing.

You just don’t need to deceive the client and say that this is a finished product. There is no need to create something that can be bought but cannot be used. MVP is really the minimal version of a product. But the minimum in relation to itself in the future, and not in relation to the market. For the market, your product must be understandably competitive at all times. Such a product cannot be created quickly and cheaply. This means that before creating it, you need to think a little more and think a little longer, and not rely on experiments and the market.

There is nothing wrong with having a close relationship with the consumer. It’s just that the information you get from them should be passed through the prism of your own vision of “what an ideal product should be”. And this vision is formed not from the knowledge of “what hurts the client right now”, but from the understanding of one’s own key competence.

Therefore, besides the question “why will people need this product?” it is critically important to ask yourself another one that almost everyone forgets about. It’s unpleasant, it’s scary, but it’s necessary. You can’t live without it. The question is:

Am I the one who can bring this idea to life better than others?

The original source is here.

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