16.07 20120

The Fastest Learner Wins

By: michelemuse Categories:Agile

Remember that guy in school…you know the one…the one always with his hand up asking questions? When the teacher handed back exam papers, he was sliding back to his seat with a smirk on his face.  Where do you think he is now?  I bet he has his own successful “start-up.”  Why do you think that is?  It is because the fastest learner wins.  The only way to learn fast is to figure out what you don’t know and ask the right people the right questions in the right way.

Increasing amounts of global competition necessitate that organizations, whether large or small, work faster and smarter and continually innovate. Traditional product development processes of developing a solid strategy and a good plan through extensive market research do not work for developing innovative solutions. Innovation means “who the customer is” or “what the product should be” is many times still unknown.  Planning and forecasting are only accurate when a product has a long, stable operating history in a static environment.

The book, The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries, offers processes for innovators to address new market conditions.  The biggest danger for an innovator is to build a product that no one wants.  In order to build a product that customers want in a competitive timeframe, an organization must take hold of the idea of “validated learning.”  This type of learning helps innovators to build a sustainable business.  In this model, learning is validated scientifically by running frequent experiments to test each element of the innovator’s vision.

In the project world we call this type of learning “progressive elaboration.”  Things become clearer as we go along, and we alter our course accordingly.  Changes can just happen to us, but we prefer to be a part of driving the process, proactively making those changes.  In his book, Ries promotes using the process “build-measure-learn” to gain “validated learning.” It is the process for turning ideas into products, measuring how customers respond and learning whether to “pivot” or “persevere” with the vision.  Good processes help to accelerate feedback and speed product development along.

In the world of science, the process used for Ries’ “validated learning” is called the scientific method.  The innovative product development model can be defined in terms of the scientific method.  Business development makes observations about the environment and  formulates “questions” about the company vision, breaking it down into testable assumptions.   Business development then develops a “hypothesis” about a question, making optimistic or pessimistic assertions about customer behavior and outlines “predictions” of outcomes based upon what is believed to be true from what is currently known.

Then, business development delivers requirements in terms of customer stories to the technical group to build a “minimum viable product” for “testing” how customers interact with the product to see if the hypothesis is correct and predictions are as assumed.  The key concept to note here is that the testing takes the form of a physical interaction with the product verses merely questioning customers about what they want.  Customers do not know if they want an entirely new, innovative idea; they only know if they like it and are willing to use it when they see it.

Lastly, feedback is received.  Business development uses “analysis” of the results of the testing to determine the next steps.  One of three things will happen.  The product will go into a full-scale launch; the scientific method process will be reiterated with new assumptions based upon information learned; or the entire build will be scraped to “pivot” the organization in a new direction based upon customer feedback.

The process requires a great deal of flexibility and an ability to move in a different direction quickly on the part of all groups involved.  In most cases, a technical group can build a product in any way desired; however, it is of little value to build a product on time, on budget and to business development’s specifications if the customers do not want to use the product.  The business development group has the responsibility to determine what the technical group should build.  The product the customers will use only can be known by continually testing what the customer will use so that the technical group knows what to build.  This is a continual learning loop of “build-measure-learn”  in which the fastest learner (company) wins.

Everyday we are being tested by our customers to see if we are providing value to them.  In order to pass the test, we have to learn what we don’t know by asking the right people the right questions in the right way.  We need to be the fastest organization at learning from the customer.  When we take a look at the growth numbers of our companies, we will know if we passed the test.

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