The Complications of Oversimplifying Lean Startup

This article was originally published on the Lean Startup Co. blog

By Heather McGough

Do you know what people are really talking about when they say “lean operations” or “running lean?” More importantly, do you know how those methodologies differ from Lean Startup? Many people seem to use those terms in a host of different ways, often interchangeably. One key result of that misinformation is the level of confusion surrounding Lean Startup thinking, what it is, and what it isn’t.

Instead of just restating information from the Lean Startup books, I’d like to discuss some of the fascinating twists and turns impacting modern channels of communication for complex ideas.


Even when you learn the basic steps of the Lean Startup Build-Measure-Learn loop, figuring out exactly how to apply them to any given problem is not always easy.

No one seriously considers launching a business, or re-igniting innovation in an aging one, to be a simple process. Yet many would prefer for all of the Lean Startup’s most practical advice to be condensed into a simple process, to be explained in say… 140 characters. Or rather, a single quick fix.

The Lean Startup methodology is an approach to solving common business problems that is dynamic, interactive, and empirical. It does not consist of a single, rubber-stamp strategy, e.g.speed up development cycles” or “fail fast.” If anything, speeding up development cycles and failing fast are byproducts of the ultimate goal: Learning.

In a conversation with Zach Ferres, CEO of the startup accelerator Coplex, Eric Ries emphatically stated, “I hate the idea of ‘fail fast.’ It’s like I’m trying to run a sprint, and you’re like, ‘OK. Breathe fast.’ The breathing is not the purpose; the sprint is the purpose.” In other words, following Lean Startup practices can help you formulate a series of rigorous hypotheses about your business and then test them, but that is very different from just trying out countless iterations of random ideas as fast as possible.

Don’t fail, test. Collaborate with your customers in a validated learning loop to learn what pain points you can help solve for them. In other words, one should learn fast rather than fail fast.

Just Give Me the Post-it Note Version

There is a tendency to produce piecemeal presentations, outlining the concepts of the Lean Startup in strokes that are much too broad. This is often due to the limitations of the social media channel, not as a result of misunderstandings, that carve away essential facts.

At a lecture in Oxford, Albert Einstein told students of science, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

In popular culture, this quote has been simplified to “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler,” – which is far less accurate, but much more memorable. Ironically, this oversimplification does not really capture Einstein’s core concept. That version of the quote brought the original idea to a wider audience, but only the truly curious will dig deeper for the facts.

Time is increasingly precious and rare in an accelerating business landscape. While social networks have made it possible for more people, to collaborate more often, across greater distances, it’s fair to say user disregard for the limitations of these communication platforms has allowed for delivery of incomplete information.

In an interview with Pando’s Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lacy, Eric pointed out that all of these factors have played into the reaction people have to the spread of Lean Startup ideology. Referring to society as a whole, he told her, “We are so fad oriented. We go from ‘something is stupid’ to ‘we’re tired of using it’ without ever going through the intervening stage of what it was… I went from one day [the Lean Startup] was the stupidest thing to it being overhyped. This is where you get so many misconceptions. People will ask ‘What is it?’ and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know, but I’m tired of it.’ A lot of the challenge with the Lean Startup methodology is it’s very nuanced.”

That’s one reason we investigate those nuances on our blog, where we examine how specific organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit across industries and at various stages in their growth cycles, have applied Lean Startup principles to a variety of challenges.

The Appeal of Controversy

The third issue I’d like to address is the common practice of writing provocative statements or headlines in order to attract site visitors or to spark a dialogue. It’s common because it works.

In fact, that correction engine is the basis of Cunningham’s Law, named for WikiWikiWeb founder Ward Cunningham: “The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.”

It’s natural to want to amplify your posts by making them pithy, witty and more dramatic. As a strategy for gaining attention in a sea of media, it can be effective. For these writers, accuracy is not the goal, and can even get in the way of an emotional talking point. Comments, even angry ones, translate into traffic, which is the modern equivalent of the maxim, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Arguing against prevailing wisdom is frequently recommended as an easy way to fill content calendars when writers are at a loss for topics.

That may be a perfectly understandable impulse, but it tends to obscure the underlying issues. Given all the financial rewards of follower counts, site traffic, and visitor dwell time, many people prefer to kindle ongoing arguments on their sites rather than share verifiable facts.

In those cases, there’s really no need to engage in disputing straw man arguments like “It’s just as easy to create an MVP as it is to create a good one.” That’s a good example of a logical fallacy known as the False Dilemma.

Instead, we want to offer real answers to people trying to grow their companies and generate innovative solutions. Our own Faculty Lead Marilyn Gorman interviewed Eric during Lean Startup Week last year and asked him for insights into how to convince jaded employees to embrace Lean Startup practices. He said it comes down to proving the value of the changes to them, “People crave results. If you can demonstrate that the system you’re talking about works and show them the proof points, then you can get through those difficult conversations.”

In the end, what matters most to people’s lives and careers is not the theory of Lean Startup, but how it solves real problems in practice.  

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