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Lean Startup & Design Thinking Aren't Opposing Forces to Big Vision
These experiment-driven frameworks help you achieve and expand your vision. (#47)
Most founders believe in using an iterative, experiment-based methodology to validate what they’re doing. I rarely meet a founder who is “completely winging it” or making every decision based entirely on their gut; so convinced they’re right they don’t need to test anything.
Lean Startup, Design Thinking and Jobs to be Done have emerged as incomplete but robust frameworks for identifying risks or unknowns and systematically testing against them. Each framework approaches things differently, but there’s considerable overlap too. And their purpose—to identify and validate a problem worth solving, and then validate whether you’ve solved that problem—is quite similar.
Years ago, as Lean Startup was getting popular, a VC asked me, “Where in the Lean Startup process does vision fit in?”
My response then (and today) is the same: “It fits in everywhere.” And the same is true for Design Thinking or JTBD. For the purposes of this article, you can think of these frameworks as interchangeable.
Iterative, experiment-driven methodologies provide the process by which you move towards achieving your vision
At a macro-level the graph below shows what success looks like for a startup; the classic “up and to the right.” Let’s assume this is tracking a metric that matters and it’s plotted over time. Most startups don’t grow quickly out of the gate, but to win big they need to hit some form of hockey stick growth curve.
These graphs tend to hide two things:
How long it actually takes (and all the work required) to get to an inflection point; and,
All the ups and downs faced along the way.
When you zoom into the graph—any part of it really—this is what you see:
To be honest, I’m being generous with how few “ups and downs” there are (making these visuals takes time!) In startups, nothing moves in a straight line, or a perfectly curved “up and to the right” line. There’s simply too much uncertainty.
The only way to navigate the uncertainty is through iterative, experiment-based frameworks that give you the methodologies and principles to test, learn and iterate.
But the big question is this: Where are you going?
As Lean Startup, Design Thinking and JTBD grow in popularity, I’ve seen a large swing towards zealotry that demands people follow these methodologies “perfectly” on the promise that doing so will solve all their problems.
That’s not how this startup thing works. 🤪
Blindly following the steps will not give you the results you want.
Blindly following the steps does not eliminate the need to properly articulate the “why” of what you’re doing.
While these methodologies encourage rapid experimentation (yay!) and iterative learning (woohoo!) they also convince people that having a true purpose for the work isn’t necessary. Experiment and iterate enough and you may hope the “why” emerges. Why are we doing this? Why do we care? How will we know if we’ve won?
Doing Lean Startup for the sake of it will result in failure
Doing Design Thinking for the sake of it will result in failure
Doing JTBD for the sake of it will result in failure
Without a “why” — call it a purpose or vision or mission — you’re still wandering the desert, even if you’re doing it through rapid experimentation, learning and iterating. It might look like you’re getting somewhere, but if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, at some level of scale, it’s a lot of “good work” for naught.
This is true at the early stages too. Although early on I’d add a fourth role: implementing a methodology or approach for how you’re going to achieve the vision and mission.
Iterative Methodologies Clarify the Steps to Achieving Your Vision
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Turns out neither was every successful startup:
Airbnb went public after 13 years
Google took 6 years
Tesla took 7 years
Facebook took 8 years
Bumble took 7 years
Big startup exits often take a long time too:
GitHub was acquired by Microsoft after 10 years
Beats was acquired by Apple after 8 years
Qualtrics was acquired by SAP after 16 years
Of course there are examples of startups getting acquired or going public much faster, but generally it’s a 5-10 year range.
Along the way there are millions of challenging, crazy and uncertain steps to take. Having a big vision won’t get you through the practicalities of navigating those steps. The vision will help motivate your employees and build a great culture, but every nitty gritty step or action along the way can’t be done solely with the vision as the decision framework.
The key is to break down the vision into smaller chunks. You can’t eat an elephant in one bite. Without a framework such as Lean Startup, Design Thinking or JTBD, you will find yourself making too many leaps of faith, taking on too many risks and not even realizing it. None of this is a straight line, but it shouldn’t be so fuzzy that you’re unable to move forward.
Set the goal—achieving the vision—and then be as logical and thoughtful as you can in terms of how to get there.
Which Comes First: the Vision or the Work?
I’m not one for writing grand manifestos on the future. Nor am I a terribly good visionary. I do like solving problems though and building businesses that create value. And to do that you need a big vision and a way to ruthlessly prioritize & execute work.
Iterative methodologies and frameworks help you discover and clarify your vision. It would be naive to assume, or expect, that you’ve got a well articulated vision from day one. I expect you have an inkling of what you’d like to achieve, but it may not be perfectly formulated. That’s OK. Just get to work.
Find a problem that matters to a specific user / user group.
Build a solution that solves that problem, creating value for the user / user group.
Through this process (which is much messier and arduous than three simple bullet points) you may discover something truly meaningful for people, a way to create incredible value and solve people’s pain. That clarity of purpose can help you shape your vision into a forward-looking statement that articulates the desired future state you’re aiming for.
I often ask founders, “What does winning look like?” Followed by, “What do you want to be the world’s greatest at?”
You may not have answers on day 1. Or day 2. Or day 100. But at some point you need answers to these questions. You can get there, in part, through using iterative, experiment-driven methodologies, because they give you a rough playbook for how to validate problems and solutions. But at some point you need to step back, survey things from 20,000 feet and “top-down” be able to articulate your purpose.
Expand Your Vision Through Learning
If you believe it’s possible to (at least partially) “experiment your way to a vision” then it’s also possible to use innovation frameworks to expand your vision.
Lean Startup, Design Thinking and JTBD do a great job of encouraging you to question everything. This is key to minimizing the leaps of faith you’ll have to take, or rushing forward in the wrong direction and failing. But questioning everything also gives you an opportunity to think bigger. What if you could reach a different customer base? What if you could solve that giant, intractable problem? What if you could bring that new technology to life?
Some people accuse these methodologies of encouraging smallness. You take tiny, iterative steps, and run rigorous experiments with as few variables as possible. Just get to the next assumption and test that. One assumption at a time. Experiment by experiment. Keep each test small, control all the variables, and go through the process enough and you’ll win.
Shit don’t work that way. 💩
In my experience, applying these methodologies with a “question everything attitude” can actually expand your horizons and opportunities, if you leave yourself open to it. I couch this in the nebulous concept of “connecting dots.” I believe innovation methodologies are designed to apply rigor to the idea of connecting dots. Over time and with experience, you see patterns more quickly. You pull on threads to explore where things can take you. You’re OK with an experiment failing, because you’ve actually learned something—you’re not just going through the motions.
You’re looking for “ahas!” that grab you by the shirt and say, “pay attention—this matters!”
You can learn your way (through Lean, Design Thinking, JTBD, etc.) to expanding your vision. I’ve seen the lightbulb go off in a founder’s head when they connect two and two, realizing there are bigger opportunities than they first thought. It’s almost as if applying these innovation methodologies properly, and going through iterative learning cycles, gives founders the permission to dream bigger. And that’s awesome.
Dream Big, Change the World, But Do It One Step at a Time
I have no issue with big dreamers, unless they can’t execute.
I have no issue with builders, unless they can’t articulate their purpose.
Building a great startup requires the combination of dreaming + executing. One is led by articulating a vision and mission, the other is led by applying the right innovation methodologies to the work.
The vision drives the work, but the work also impacts the vision. I don’t see this as a perfectly linear relationship.
Lenny Rachitsky shared this great visual on how vision and work are interconnected, along with the mission, strategy, etc.
This makes a ton of sense. It logically articulates the process by which you start with a mission and going through several stages, you get to a roadmap (and the work you’re going to do). This articulates a linear relationship between these things, and I don’t think it’s that simple.
You can replace “vision” with “mission” and this also makes sense. The work we do, particularly at the earliest stages, applying Lean / Design Thinking / JTBD, experimenting and iterating through hypotheses, influences the vision, mission and purpose of the company. You can’t completely iterate your way to a vision or mission, but you also don’t need to wake up one day with a swell of inspiration, hit by a stroke of genius, to come up with a vision that matters. You can get there over time.
Here are some great resources to think through your vision / mission:
How to write a vision statement: Steps and examples by Julia Martins
How the most successful B2B startups came up with their original idea by Lenny Rachitsky (this is a good reminder that most did not start with a mission or vision; they went out to find a problem that matters)
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