If they come, then build it

Our typical way of thinking is “if you build it, they will come.” The whispering ghosts from Field of Dreams continue to tell Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) this “truth.” For those of you who haven’t experienced Costner at his best (relative term!), here’s the IMDB summary:

Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in his corn field tell him, “If you build it, he will come.” He interprets this message as an instruction to build a baseball field on his farm, upon which appear the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Chicago White Sox players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series. When the voices continue, Ray seeks out a reclusive author to help him understand the meaning of the messages and the purpose for his field.

While Kinsella’s bold action provided him the chance to see the ghosts of the White Sox (including the ghost of his father), I have a feeling that Eric Ries would not approve! In The Lean Startup, Ries advocates an approach of testing a hypothesis to see if “they will come”, then start building. Or said another way, “build as little as possible, then see if they will come.”

Before we divine into the lean mentality, think about how this might look in the context of your life…say you want to start cycling. Do you

  1. Go to the bike store, purchase a $2000 road bike, get all the gear, watches, etc. or,
  2. Buy a $50 bike on craigslist. Purchase used gear. Wait to see if you actually enjoy riding then buy a nicer bike.

Sadly, my approach is typically to jump right in and buy the “nice bike” (NOTE: I don’t ride, I run). This approach is also taken by many in business.

Here’s a headline from Business Insider… “21-Year-Old Raises Largest Seed Round In Silicon Valley History — $25 Million — For Mysterious Payments App

To summarize, a 21 yr old Stanford grad just raised an enormous amount of funding with little more than an idea and a well paid team of advisers. There are no customers, no revenues and he’s entering a crowded space. That said, he has signed up some of the smartest VCs in the valley, and the people who run these firms are extremely smart, so I am not doubting the potential of Clinkle, just the approach.

Continuing on the Lean Startup theme, I wanted to share a different approach than the one taken by Kevin Costner and the start-up Clinkle. As mentioned above this approach is all about building as little as possible, and then testing and learning to see if “they will come.” One of the key terms in the lean lexicon is “minimum viable product” (MVP). In fact just using the term “MVP” will make seem a lot smarter and hip than you really are!


The diagram above should help to explain what a minimum viable product is. Below is the definition from Ries:

the minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

The thinking from the lean startup is that any effort put in above what is minimally viable is waste. Remember from “Getting credit for learning“, the goal of a startup is to learn. Additional features that don’t help us test a hypothesis are not necessary.

So what if you’re not in a startup, but rather an established company, the government, a not-for-profit? You too can also apply the concept of MVP.

Here’s an example of how we used the concept of MVP to test the impact of new space. I wanted to try and answer the question, can we effectively use space to facilitate collaboration? I know this sounds like a silly question (isn’t the answer yes!), but in a 107 year old insurance company with lots of cubicles, I wanted to test before a large build out.

So our MVP was created by moving a few cubicle walls and having a portion of my team sit together. We decided to eliminate our staff meeting as a test to see if information flowed more freely in the open space. After several months of testing, it’s clear that our configuration is highly effective. New hires learn at a quicker rate. Relationships are deeper on the team. Moral is high. Productivity has increased. Communication is better…I could keep going. What’s even better, is our MVP has shown other groups what is possible by reconfiguring space. When thinking about MVP don’t constrain yourself to true “product”.

The Zappos MVP

The story of the Zappos MVP is so amazing, I wasn’t sure how I had not heard it before. Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos, wanted to start an online shoe company. He believed the most important hypothesis to test was “is there already sufficient demand for a superior online shopping experience for shoes?”

Rather than building out a slick website, buying warehouses, creating an integrated distribution model, Swinmurn went to a local shoe seller and asked if he could take pictures of the shoes and post them on his website. If customers decided to buy the shoes, Swinmurn agreed to go back to the shoe store and buy the shoes at full price.

This kind of MVP is often called a “Wizard of Oz” prototype because you don’t have to set up all the infrastructure. The man behind the curtain can create the effects.

Through Swinmurn’s MVP he was able to learn to take payments, answer customers questions, accept returns, all without setting up a warehouse and buying inventory. He was also able to test his hypothesis and learn that there was demand for an online shoe buying experience.

Hopefully these examples show how you can create MVPs no matter what industry you are in. Apply some creativity and think through what hypothesis you need to test and what MVP you can create to run the test. The process is iterative, so getting to your MVP quickly and beginning to learn is crucial.

Begin pushing yourself to MVP anything and everything. And please share your successes and failures!


Getting credit for learning

I sat in a colleague’s office several months ago and we actually googled “getting credit for learning.” We were in the middle of a difficult period in which we were making many changes. The two of us knew that the last six months had taught us many lessons that would prove beneficial going forward, but learning doesn’t lift ROIs, increase sales or improve margins. The CFO can’t spend what we had learned. So how do we get credit for learning?

Sadly, google failed me and I didn’t walk away with a good answer. It wasn’t until I read The Lean Startup that I found my answer.

…if the fundamental goal of entrepreneurship is to engage in organization building under conditions of extreme uncertainty, it’s most vital function is learning


In the Lean Startup model, we are rehabilitating learning with a concept I call validated learning. Validated learning is not after-the-fact rationalization or a good story designed to hide failure. It is a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when on is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty…


We were deep in the soil of uncertainty, so using validated learning would have aided us in showing progress. The key to Ries’s methodology is in it’s rigor. The Lean Startup method relies on a Build, Measure, and Learn cycle.

photo credit: http://e7systems.com/

My main take away from build, measure, learn is that you start work in reverse. Here’s how to use the framework:

  • What is it you want to learn? ex Do our customers prefer a new product feature?
  • How can you measure this? ex We will measure sales on a A/B basis. Group A gets the new feature, group B doesn’t
  • What do you need to build? ex We build the systems capable of issuing products with both features.

But the process can also work with process or something personal. Here’s an example of building a new process:

  • What is it you want to learn? Is the new product development process viable?
  • How can you measure this? How long in months does it take to develop a product in the new process?
  • What do you need to build? We take two similar products down two alternative tracks.

On of the reasons I am so attracted to the Lean Startup is that it borrows many of the principals of design thinking.

In other words, we need the scientific method. In the Lean Startup model, every product, every feature, every marketing campaign – everything a startup does – is understood to be an experiment designed to achieve validated learning. This experimental approach works across industries and sectors…


Source: static.ddmcdn.com

These decisions are experiments set up by design, for a specific purpose. An work done that doesn’t result in us learning something about a customer (or process) is waste. Also, it should be clear that iteration is an important part of the process.

In design thinking, the process is moving us towards prototyping and testing. It’s a given that your first idea will not be our best idea and we use prototyping as a way to gain empathy – so it would be wasteful to spend an extra 2 months on the prototype because what we’re really after are the empathy and insights.

In the Lean Startup method, we are trying to get to “learn” as quickly as possible and then the cycle starts again.

Do you (like me) want to get credit for learning? If so, please check out Ries’s book and become a student of the scientific method. Be clear ahead of time which hypothesis you are trying to test (what are you trying to learn?) and how you are going to measure success. Think of yourself as a scientist running a lab of experiments.

Please share if you have experience with lean methods. I’ve love how this book has helped me to re-frame work issues. Read the Lean Startup if you want to be stretched and waste less time on features, process, steps and don’t help create learning.


Last night around 8:30pm pacific time I walked through the Stanford quad and down Palm Drive with another coach from the d.school. We stopped at the edge of the oval to look back at the beauty of the campus. It sometimes seems that the temp is always 72F and the skies are continually sunny.

With the beauty of the campus as a backdrop, I kept coming to this phrase, “but it’s really about…” I want to spend sometime thinking what this week was really about, while introducing you to a new (and amazing) framework the d.school is using for storytelling.

As mentioned in the previous posts, we spent a couple hours of day 1 at SFO performing direct empathy interviews. This exposes deep user needs. Those needs propel us to explore several wild and potentially breakthrough solutions. We turn the ideas into something users can experience and interact with. Finally, we test with our users and iterate. This is design thinking in a paragraph.

Storytelling is a crucial element of design thinking, so the d.school has developed a framework to help guide us. Here’s the high level:

  • We met…
  • We were amazed to realize…
  • We created…
  • But it’s really about…

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I love this last phrase so much. It communicates to me the idea of discovery and iteration. We had this great trip to the airport and we uncovered some deep needs. We then developed this amazing new service. We then tested it with users….that journey led us to realize that we had had missed, or that we hadn’t identified the correct need.

The design thinking process is all about getting to the “but it’s really about” moment. It’s so cool ideating, building and testing knowing those are just ingredients to determining the meta need and insight.

So back to Palm Drive…what was my “but it’s really about?” I had come back to the d.school to be stretched and to improve my skills as a design thinker – I did that (times 100!).

But it’s really about doing. It’s clear to me that my time at the d.school is only meant to be a blip when compared with a lifetime of doing. As mentioned above, the design thinking process is biased towards action. “The only way to do it, is to start doing it” – sign in the d.school.

As I leave the d.school, I feel more energized to make things, to spend time with users, to uncover deep needs. It was a great week and I feel incredibly blessed to be associated with the d.school!


DTBC Day 2: Just beyond crazy is fabulous

Day 2 is extremely fun at the d.school (actually all the days are fun!) because we spend a lot of day 2 ideating and prototyping.

We have this phrase we like to use, “just beyond crazy is fabulous.” Today was so much fun because we pushed our team to this place. We came up with solutions that were completely beyond the realm of what is possible and legal and then we took it a step further and continued to build off of those ideas.

I love the moment in an ideation session where everyone in the group is almost crying they are laughing so hard. The gold is in those ideas because they tend to invite such rich user feedback. And since design thinking is always about getting back to user empathy, wild ideas are really just a means get higher quality empathy.

Tomorrow (Day 3) will be our last day, and I am sad to see it pass so quickly. My time here has been a blast and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from all of the wonderful coaches and participants. I now feel more comfortable with pushing pass crazy to fabulous design and solutions – and that is awesome.

Looking forward to sharing more…

DTBC Day 1: Find the wonderful

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The picture above comes from our time at SFO today. We are working on a design project for JetBlue as a part of Stanford’s Design Thinking Boot Camp (DTBC).

I was fascinated by observing the mother and kid in the picture. To set the context for you, this was shot in the international terminal this afternoon. Almost everyone’s flight was delayed due to runway closurers as a result of the crash on Saturday.

So what is this family doing? They are playing a game by jumping from one line to the next.   His mom has turned the delay into an opportunity to have fun.

This scene makes me think of how air travel is still full of wonder to children and first time flyers. They aren’t angry about delays. They aren’t frustrated by the security line. Their mind is still blown by the fact that a piece of metal is going to take them 6 miles above the ground and thousand of miles away from where they are now.

The wonderfulness of it all changes their perspective and improves the experience.

So as I walked through the airport interviewing strangers for the 2nd time (the first time was last September when I was a participant in DTBC) I had to remind myself to see the wonderfulness of the program and the experience the participants are having.

What’s an experience/project/circumstance you are in now that might seem mundane, but there is actually something wonderful? Can you look at your circumstances as a child would and find the wonderful? I promise it will radically change your prospective.

DTBC Day 0: Be vulnerable

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Today was a great start to the Design Thinking Boot Camp (DTBC). I was surprised by the importance of being vulnerable. I’ve called this day 0 because today was just for coaches and apprentices.

Tomorrow DTBC begins with about 70 participants. We will be working on a design challenge for JetBlue that centers around improving the ground experience for passengers at SFO. One of the first things we do is actually go to SFO and interview people there.

We were asked to write down the one thing that we wanted to impart to our teams when we are doing empathy work at SFO tomorrow.

Anna-Love Mickelson‘s (who has inspired another blog post) 1 thing was to push her team to be vulnerable with the people they interview – because, if they are vulnerable as an interviewer, they are more likely to get stories and emotions from the people they interview.

I thought this was an awesome point to keep in mind, but not just for DTBC, but for life.

In the business world, many successful people have gotten to where they are by being assertive, powerful, confident, etc. The idea of being weak is laughable to them.

But to be an emphatic  leader, you have to take some emotional risk. Being vulnerable means that you could be hurt. Humility is a required character trait. Weakness are strengths. Losing is winning. Being last is being first. Discomfort is comfort.

But in that risk, there is great reward. By opening up, you get to see who people really are at the core and have the potential to help meet deeper needs.

So I am adopting Anna’s goal of pushing my team to be vulnerable with each other, with the people we meet tomorrow at SFO, and more importantly, with people in their lives and organizations once DTBC is over.

design thinking boot camp

I wanted to let my readers know that I will be in lovely Palo Alto, CA all of this week at Stanford’s Design Thinking Boot Camp. I am pumped about returning to DTBC as an apprentice coach. I’ll be apprenticing under a super talented designer from IDEO.

My goal is to share something from each day that surprised me. It’s sure to be an exciting week, so I am looking forward to sharing my experience on my blog. More to come!