A conversation with Eric Ries of The Lean Startup
Recently I had a chance to talk to Eric Ries, author of the best-selling book The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses and the force behind a radical new business approach that has swept through Silicon Valley and the larger business community over the past couple of years.
Ries’ central idea is that companies today must constantly experiment, test, and learn—so they can systematically figure out how to develop and refine successful offerings in a marketplace that is dynamic and marked by uncertainty. A lot of Ries’ work is rooted in questioning. Indeed, a key question he’s focused on is, “How can companies create better experiments?” (so that, based on what they learn from those experiments, they can ultimately develop better products).
I interviewed Ries for my Fast Company piece “The 5 Bold Questions Every Business Should Ask.” While the FC article zeroes in on Ries’ question about creating experiments, our conversation covered a lot of other ground—so I thought I’d share some of that discussion here.
Our conversation began with me explaining the concept behind A More Beautiful Question—and I asked Ries about the role of questioning within the Lean Startup methodology.
“First off, questioning is a cool framing,” Ries said. “The industrial economy was all about knowing the answer and expressing confidence. If you did your homework, you’d know all the answers—and if you had unanswered questions, that meant you did a bad job.”
But Ries explained that when companies are operating in an environment of extreme uncertainty—as is true of all startups as well as larger businesses today that strive to be innovative—it’s no longer about having all the answers upfront. “A lot of the people I work with now, we have to train them to be willing to acknowledge the uncertainty and to ask the seemingly dumb questions,” Ries said.
“I would say we’re moving away from analysis, expertise and best practices,” he added, “and much more toward rapidly evolving knowledge. So rather than asking, What works for people in my industry?, a much better question now is, What works for me and my company? How can we put that knowledge to use? And the idea that you’re going to get that right on the first try is ludicrous.”
How would we go about finding out if an idea is actually going to work?
Ries stressed the point that experimentation is a way for people within a company to test their ideas and see if they actually might work. “It’s funny, managers are always asking me, ‘How can we come up with better ideas?’” Ries said. “The truth is companies are full of ideas; ideas are not scarce. But if you ask, OK, let’s pick one of those ideas you’re excited about: How would we go about finding out if that idea is actually going to work? They don’t know how to do that.” So the key, Ries says, is developing a system that allows ideas to be tested quickly so that an organization can harvest the best ones. By enabling and allowing employees to experiment more, those employees “can find out the answers to their questions themselves.”
I asked Ries how companies and the people working in them can become better at experimenting. “I think of it like a layer cake, where you’ve got to do the foundational stuff and then you can get to the more complicated stuff, “ he said. “But even the foundational stuff, if that’s all you do, is so powerful. What I begin with is: ‘If you grant that we’re operating with all this uncertainty—and that the purpose of building a product or doing any other activity is to create an experiment to reduce that uncertainty—then instead of asking the question, What will we do? or What will we build? we change it to What will we learn? And then you work backwards to the simplest possible thing—what we call the ‘minimum viable product’—the smallest thing that can get you the learning. Just this one change—before you get to any of the more complicated process things—can produce really remarkable results.”
Are companies comfortable having their employees ask questions?
“When it comes to questioning and innovation,” said Reis, “the most senior managers say to me, ‘I don’t get why this isn’t happening, I tell people they should totally question me, as much as they want—and then they don’t.’ But it’s not about slogans or putting up posters on the wall, it’s the systems and the incentives you create for people that then creates the behavior—so if you don’t like the level of questioning in your organization, and you’re in senior management, look in the mirror.”
“At way too many companies,” he added, “questioning is a sign of weakness. Often the resources flow to the person with the most confident, best plan. Or the person with no failures on their record. I meet people who’ve been in companies for a decade or more and they have no failures on their record and that means one of two things: Either they’re the most conservative person on earth, or they’re lying. So if you want to change that, you have to think hard about how to create incentives and give resources to the people who are doing the behaviors you want.”
Since so much of Ries’ work is built around experimentation and prototyping, I wanted to know if he agreed with the idea, as stated by the IDEO designer Diego Rodriguez, that “a prototype is a question embodied.” “I totally agree with that,” Ries said. “But it’s funny, even though designers are used to prototyping, they consider me to be a lunatic on that scale. I want them not just to build the prototype and use it to answer questions like ‘Hey does this design look good?’ I want them to sell the prototype and put it in the actual hands of customers. Because the business model and the corporate structure that we’re going to plan around this product—that superstructure is also part of the experiment. It doesn’t matter if you have a good product if you don’t have the organization or business model to sustain it. So all those things should be part of the prototype.”
A technique designed to overcome the limits of human psychology
Lastly, I spoke to Ries about one of my favorite questioning techniques, “the 5 whys” (wherein you try to uncover the root cause of a problem by asking ‘why’ five times in succession, as described in this earlier post). Ries is a big believer in the ‘5 whys’ as part of the Lean Startup method, so I said to him, “Asking why five times sounds kind of fanciful—does it actually work?”
“It may sound fanciful but it’s an idea that originates from the Toyota production system,” Ries said. “They used to use it on the factory floor in some of the hardest, most industrial conditions imaginable… and those are serious dudes. It’s a technique that’s really designed to overcome the limits of human psychology. Because human beings tend to personalize things that are actually systemic. And we tend to get moral about mistakes. Instead, we should be saying, ‘No, if it’s possible to make a mistake then that probably means the system is making it too easy to make a mistake; it’s not that the person who made the mistake is bad.’ The version of the ‘5 whys’ we practice is really about matching each of the five questions to an intervention you can make—an immediate change. And once you have this culture in place, then you just do the ‘5 whys’ as a routine matter whenever a mistake is made—and it actually makes mistakes a lot less scary.”