You can’t have a conversation about lean innovation without bringing author Ash Maurya to the table… so we did! We recently joined Ash Maurya for a Facebook Live chat to explore corporate innovation and growth space.
Ash’s books, Running Lean (2010) and Scaling Lean (2016) have revolutionized the world of lean innovation. As an expert in all things lean, Ash shares his words of wisdom in the 30-minute recording from our Facebook Live chat below.
We’ve also highlighted a few of his answers to share with teams that are looking to ask (and answer!) the right questions while running and scaling lean.
It’s been about a decade since your first book, Running Lean. Since then, what has changed in how entrepreneurs and Bigcos are building disruptive ideas?
Ash: Yeah, I can’t believe it’s already been almost a decade. Time flies, I guess, when you’re having fun. But yeah, so a lot of The Lean Startup kind of burst on the scene really trying to describe challenges of building products under conditions of extreme uncertainty. A lot of the early adopters were startups; hence, The Lean Startup. But what I found is that a lot of the trends had been already occurring. You see, companies like Amazon and Facebook, and they already embraced this notion of rapid experimentation, rapid innovation; a And they are the models when we look at the large companies.
But to your question, I would say a lot of this came out from recognizing that there were these newer, fundamental approaches to building a product. It wasn’t enough just to build a product; You had to uncover what to build. You had to include customer engagement continuously throughout the process, and those were some of the core principles.
A lot of the early ideas that were in The Lean Startup book and also Running Leanwere about getting outside the building, how to engage customers, and that’s what I spent a lot of my early years kind of trying to figure out.
So it’s obviously kind of the genesis of what’s new and why you felt you had to write “Scaling Lean.” Could you talk about some principles as you’ve observed over the years? What has stayed most consistent? What are the most important mindsets that have stayed the same over the years?
Ash: The notion that customers have the answers but they can’t give them to you. I think that’s been something we have known for a while is you can’t simply ask customers what they want. Often times they too are solution-based. So they say, “Why don’t you go build this?” And you build that and that still doesn’t work.
So what I find, and this is, again, looking back at even my work across “The Lean Canvas,” and even the second book, I found this recurring theme, which is the thing that is universal is that as innovators, as entrepreneurs, we rush to solutions too quickly and we are biased ourselves. Also, when we talk to customers, we try to show them the solution too quickly and bias them. Sometimes we can even get them excited by a surface solution to a problem, but the real challenge is trying to solve the more, kind of, deeper root causes of problems.
So a lot of what I’m focused on these days, and what I’m trying to write, or the mindset shift that I try to get people to have is this notion of loving the problem, not the solution; and really always looking for evidence of the problem. So you may have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t find evidence that others are either struggling with a job to be done or an outcome that they’re trying to achieve, where you can do something better, it’s going to be an uphill battle. So to me, that is kind of the core thing that hasn’t really changed is start with problems and then go onto solutions.
And then other things like speed,: speed of leaning, kind of rapid experimentation, and rapid innovation are all required in this new way of working. I have this image that I like to show often, and it’s that as we’ve seen product teams embrace a lot of these iterative methodologies like agile, or even “Lean Startup,” they have moved ahead,; but unfortunately business planning is still stuck in waterfall. And you can’t have that dual motive– you’re doing business planning in waterfall andyou’re telling the teams to go fast– it just doesn’t work.
We would love to hear more from you about the challenge you describe of just defining the problem or defining the opportunity that’s out there. Because in scaling, we give a lot of awesome tools to take something that can feel very big and nebulous, and hard to define, and break it down into very actionable, concrete steps. Can you talk about that?
Ash: Sure. Yeah, so I guess the first step that I always go through is really take a snapshot of the idea. And the favorite tool of, you know, we’re obviously bias is read The Lean Canvas. But what I like about that is it’s a very simple exercise. We actually timebox it to 20 or 30 minutes, or interview a client, or interview an entrepreneur. And the idea is to see the idea from their point of view but then start asking questions like, “How would the customer look at this?”
So fundamentally, there is a transformation that happens where usually an innovator says, you know, “I want to do something, and with this technology. It’s gotta be blockchain, it’s gotta be this, it’s gotta be that.” But when you start asking yourself, “Well, who is the early adopter of this? And then what are they using today and what are they trying to get done?” You begin to sometimes see that maybe the tech itself is not enough. You’ve got to kind of look at things from the perspective of the customer problem. So for me, that usually is step one. And that opens, kind of, the window for doing more problem exploration.
Interviewer: Yeah, that’s great. And so you had mentioned it’s definitely about what they do, not what they say, and we at The Garage Group are very firm believers of that as well. And we focus on transactional research, so measuring those behaviors is truly “what they do.” Are there any tips or ways that you get an idea to a point that you can measure “what they’re doing” versus “what they’re saying?”
Ash: Before you run any experiment, you have to get to that point, which is, “What am I going to measure for this experiment?” Sometimes people throw this in as an after effect, and by then, it’s usually too late because you’re not instrumented for that and you just don’t know how to measure if the experiment works or not. So that’s a very important best practice is to declare outcomes up front and clearly identify a metric to measure.
Now I’m a big fan of the pirate metrics, the AARRR metrics that I think a number of people have definitely run into. In the Scaling Lean book, I redraw that slightly different. I call it “The Customer Factory Blueprint.” But the idea is that it works like a system. There are some set stages that customers go through from when they’re unaware about a product or a feature to when they first become aware.:
So whenever we’re running an experiment, I usually like to target one of those five things. Ideally, we’d always like to target revenue, but sometimes when you’re running an experiment in three weeks, you can’t get all the way to the end. You might start with testing for interest and then for activation, so you might kind of walk that kind of step-by-step.
So, if I were building an iPhone app, for instance, and say I have already an audience and I have a web app, the first experiment I might run in three weeks is not build the app, because that’s gonna take me three months or six months. I might actually just start with a teaser. I might start with a screenshot, email my audience, and do an in-app message saying, “We’re building this iPhone app. Vote up or down if you’d like us to build it.” And that would be what I’d measure.
If nobody wants the app, then why even bother building anything? So there I’m measuring that acquisition trigger, and that’s an example of how one would break the experiment into multiple experiments where you are additively trying to get towards the goal instead of trying to get it all at once.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Ash: I would say that I started by really looking, searching for problems really for myself. I would love to say I wrote for others, but I wrote really for myself. My blog was really a bunch of questions I was struggling with as an entrepreneur, and I actually hoped that by exposing myself, people would have pity and come and give me some answers in the comments and steer me along the way. And that’s how I started; there was always this search for solutions to things I was running into.
I think you’ll find that lean startup is that way, and that’s why the community, I believe, grew so quickly, is that people weren’t here saying, “I have figured this out. This is how you go do it.” They were all sharing their learning, and together, we were able to see a bit further, and then we codify that into a set of principles.
And that’s what I continue to do– I spend a lot of time with entrepreneurs. I still run into problems. I want to hear about their problems and really dig into them. That allows me to better understand the problem. And quoting Charles Kettering, “If you can do that, you’re halfway there.”
So then, I throw a bunch of solutions, and my books are examples of that. They start off as usually blog posts, some of them work, some of them don’t work, some book titles work, some concepts work, and those are all the failures that no one hears about or a few people, the poor souls, hear about. But then you find better solutions, and that really is my process. So that’s generally how things surface to books or the platform that we built.
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