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The Lean Startup and MVP or minimum viable product is a buzzword in town right now. Tech startups have adopted such terminology for good and bad, the good being they really do want to go Lean, to get to market quickly, to reduce waste and embark on a process of continuous improvement, the bad being that it’s just another industry buzz word, randomly dropped into conversation at meetup groups, investor events and to industry types in order to impress. For either reason though, it’s easier to say than do and the term can mean different strokes to different folks.

I’ve said this in a different post but our interpretation of going Lean and consequently delivering MVP is as follows:

To go Lean is to deliver a viable, testable and deployable piece of software with as few user stories as possible

I stress this is our interpretation of the good work done by Eric Ries on the movement known as The Lean Startup and we use it as a mantra when looking to streamline the projects we work on in order to focus on high value and to deliver high quality software quickly and iteratively with minimal wasted effort.

As an agency working with a lot of startups (and established organisations in need of some strategic thinking) we’ve had plenty of practice at defining MVP and I’ve witnessed various levels of resistance which I think is possible to sum up in 4 different personalities:

  • The ‘It all works perfectly in my head’: Stakeholders generally don’t like the idea of launching without every feature they’ve committed to memory because they’ve become so attached to each and every one of them it’s hard to objectively consider the value of each. If you think about it, this makes sense because in many cases, particularly for new start-ups the venture can be all-consuming – it’s the last thing they think of when they go to bed and the first thing they think of when they get up – judgement becomes clouded because of the personal investment in each and every detail.
  • The ‘I can only think this way’: Unless from a tech or manufacturing background the concepts of ‘Lean’ and ‘MVP’ are completely alien. People generally think of all the things that could possibly go into something and then write them down without any help or steering as to how to split a project down into features (or epics), user stories, customer journeys or any of the other terms we are so familiar with. It’s generally a stream of consciousness with everything apportioned equal value and often accompanied by vast wireframes or visuals encapsulating everything. Again, this is completely understandable because this is generally how a person with an idea and some time on their hands makes sense of things
  • The ‘Hedge my bets’: This sort of client is especially relevant to agencies such as ourselves who offer their services to clients who often feel by cramming as many features into the specification/scope somehow they’re getting better value for money. This can be understandable particularly when dealing with fixed price work but it’s the wrong way of thinking about it because there’s too much weight applied to secondary and edge-case features which may or may not be useful in the long run – it’s an expensive way of hedging your bets when not enough has been done to understand the proposition in terms of priorities and value items vs secondary items vs edge case items. And again, I get why people do this but at it’s root it stem’s from a lack of trust or scepticism in the client > agency relationship.
  • The ‘It’s my money so I can say what I want you to do with it’: True enough, it’s not our money to spend but at the same time this attitude undermines a whole load of expertise and experience we can provide. I want customers to come to us and say ‘It’s my money help me spend it wisely’ because that’s what our experience has taught us to do and that’s what we want to help achieve.
  • The common theme running through these points is that clients can be missing the tools, understanding and motivation required (for whatever reason) to focus efforts on the high value items, to deliver only the parts of the proposition to be able to provide a valid service and to evolve the proposition based on actual customer feedback through continuous improvement. Some of this can be ego related ‘I KNOW what my customers want’, some don’t appreciate the benefits of working this way ‘it’s my way or the high way’ and usually everyone is lacking the expertise to actually define an MVP and so the only thing they can do is cover as many bases as possible in the hope that some of it will stick.

    The most convincing argument is that the potential for waste when insisting on delivering EVERYTHING that was conceived up-front is enormous. This cannot be overstated and we have several pieces of evidence (anecdotal but convincing all the same) to prove it. Take a recent example of a web application we built for global lighting manufacturer Havells Sylvani. Through various workshops (sometimes with up to 30 stakeholders around the table) we scoped out a backlog of 16 user stories for their online product finder. About 8 (half) of these were determined to be MVP and we delivered them as a viable, working version albeit slightly less grand than was originally conceived. The important thing is that it worked and it delivered something they were crying out for more than anything else – searching for products by SKU code was their absolute MUST HAVE, ‘I will not go live without it’ feature. After that we were able to test the product finder on their customers and sales staff (the 2 primary end-users) and low and behold, once they had it in their hands the suggestions came flooding in. We were able to scope out new and totally valid user stories and re-write those in the backlog that needed re-writing based on actual user data as opposed to assumptions. Out of the 8 original user stories which weren’t part of MVP not one remained ‘as-is’ with some being deleted entirely, new ones written in their place and several being significantly re-worked.

    Can you imagine what a waste this would have been (of our time and the client’s money) if someone had insisted we battle all the way through the user stories before we launched? Instead, we were able to deliver their absolute must have for half the money, release the product finder early and direct the second half of the budget to delivering exactly what the users wanted, based on real and tangible data and not wasting the money on what we had assumed they needed before we started. A great win for the client, their users and for us.

    The first hurdle is to help your customers understand the compelling reasons for taking this approach (see above) and to provide the framework that convinces them you are striving to deliver value and quality and not simply trying to cut out features you don’t fancy doing. It’s the difference between offering yourself up as a development or design studio whose resources can be told what to do and providing valuable consultancy and steering based on the experience you have gained over many projects. Not doing the latter is a massive waste of accumulated knowledge, something your clients don’t likely have but will need in abundance if their ideas are to succeed.

    Our process has evolved over the years to help deliver the most valuable features and cut away the dead wood, which in turn allows us to concentrate on the features that deliver the best return on investment. We run a number of workshops with our clients in which we perform several fun, engaging and often enlightening activities which I’ll write about in a different post. Ultimately, if you do them with your clients you’ll have a very persuasive argument to go lean and to focus on delivering MVP first and foremost.

    In the mean time, I can thing of a number of reasons why it’s worth considering this approach and persuading your clients to come on board.

    • You get to market before your competitors, engage your customers and improve the service before they’ve even launched
    • Getting to market early means you can start getting a return on your investment early
    • It gives you the opportunity to change direction because you haven’t committed all your funds to a ‘big bang’ approach
    • The decision to develop uncertain or unproven features can be postponed until such a time as they can be validated or dropped
    • As an agency we’re able to help our clients spend their money wisely
    • Clients make the most of the services, expertise and experience an agency can provide a project

    I’d be interested in hearing other benefits (or otherwise) from anyone else out there.