Product Design

Does Lean/CD = Incremental Innovation?

Before I begin, in the very slim chance that anyone of the Lean or Customer Development (CD) gods find their way to this remote corner of the web, I am a big advocate of the Lean movement in it's larger sense (Present capacity = work + waste, in particular), and the ideas espoused by Steve Blank in Four Steps to the Epiphany (product/market fit to be precise). We've been building mercanix in the early days using these ideas as guiding lights; just not as a road map. Why? I wasn't sure in the beginning...just a gut feeling...and I kept hearing the phrase "the map is not the territory," rattling around in the back of my head.

As we've been progressing through the milestones toward launching our public beta (and eventual production release), I couldn't help struggling with this nagging feeling that following the Lean/CD ideals too closely leads to incremental innovation rather than truly disruptive innovation. Innovation that captures the imagination and markets with audacious gestures.

Lean/OODA/CD advocates will likely say I'm totally overlooking [insert pertinent method, idea, theory, practice here] as espoused by [insert Lean/CD god here]. And that's probably accurate -  up to a point. But I'm getting the itchy-scratchy's with where this whole Lean/CD thing is going and how blindly many are following and extending the initial theories/work.

I've got no beef with Eric Ries or Steve Blank or anyone else riding the Lean/CD bandwagon. In fact, most of them seem like pretty cool guys. But the hype is getting a little nauseating (not their fault I don't imagine) to me, and stopping people from using critical thinking.

The ideas of low burn, fast iteration, product/market fit, etc...prior to scaling is all good...but it seems be crowding out some other perspectives. And god forbid that your opinion should differ from one of the gods or apostles...there's no room for dissension or debate among some of these people. It all feels rather religious to me know, where 18 months ago these were just touted as "interesting ideas," even by their creators.

Apologies for the slight digression. I am coming back on point now. But with an alternate opinion.

The Lean/CD approach seems to lend itself better to Incremental Innovations rather than Disruptive Innovations (see Christensen, et al); as it appears to focus on User Centered Design/Design Thinking (see Tim Brown and IDEO, etc) processes versus Design-Driven Innovations (see Roberto Verganti as one example).

What does that mean? It means that you are primarily using the customer perspective to drive your product development rather than creating something entirely new (dare I say radical). Products that defy categories and introduce new propositions to customers. Let's look at a couple examples.

A marketing manager for Apple described its market research as consisting of "Steve looking in the mirror every morning and asking himself what he wanted."


"Market? What Market! We do not look at market needs. We make proposals to people." Ernesto Gismondi, chairman of Artemide.

These two companies in particular have been responsible for some very disruptive and successful products. And not just once. They didn't look to their customers to come up with product ideas. They created "proposals" for their clients. Higher risk to be sure. It would appear higher reward as well. Perhaps there is a way to do Lean/CD AND Design-Driven Innovation? We think so.

The Lean/CD revolution is like any other revolution; they rarely deliver on their promises. That's not the fault of their main proponents, but their devout followers may want to broaden their perspective a little and mix in some other ideas. I know we are, and we're feeling good about it as we travel the path to scalability. 


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