Tag Archives: Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The Lean Startup Critique: Avoiding the Innovator’s Blind Spot

If you’re an entrepreneur, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries is a must read. This book has been established in startup lore (along with The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steven Gary Blank) as the canon for entrepreneurs. My own thinking around innovation has been greatly influenced by this work, and I believe the methodologies outlined are absolutely worth learning and applying.

There’s another book I would like to add to the entrepreneur’s reading list: The Wide Lens by Ron Adner. I’m an advocate because Adner exposes an area of potential weakness in the lean startup methodology for the would-be innovator.

Avoidable Failure in The Lean Startup

Adner does not counter The Lean Startup central thesis that innovation requires “Validated Learning” [1] through experimentation, scientifically testing innovative ideas. He simply says that knowing the customer and developing a product using validated learning is not enough for the would-be innovator.

Using the term “Innovation Blind Spot,” [2] Adner describes when “…smart companies and talented managers invested, implemented, and succeeded in bringing genuinely brilliant innovations to market. But after the innovations launched, they failed.” [2] Adner argues this type of failure can be avoided. He goes on to discuss companies that fail to realize value through innovation:

“The companies understood how their success depended on meeting the needs of their end customers, delivering great innovation, and beating the competition. But [they fall] victim to the innovator’s blind spot: failing to see how their success also depended on partners who themselves would need to innovate and agree to adapt in order for their efforts to succeed.” [2]

Avoiding the Innovator’s Blind Spot

As readers of this blog know, I enjoy going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. One of my favorite places to visit in the museum is the Impressionists section where you can see paintings from world-renowned artist (only needing a last name to recognize) including Renoir,  Degas, and, my favorite, Monet.

La Japonaise  - Camille Monet in Japanese Costume by Claude Monet in 1876

Acquired from Boston Museum of Fine Arts Website (MFA.org) on January 2nd, 2014

Over the past year, one of Monet’s paintings was on display during a restoration process. The painting is called La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), and during the restoration it could be seen from different viewpoints including upside-down, giving observers a fantastic opportunity to see the painting in a new way.

In the book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the Impressionists had to find new ways to share their innovative, and often scorned, creations with the world. In his description, Gladwell calls the Impressionists outsiders who were repeatedly rejected by the Salon—the place where traditional French artists would be discovered and shown. Monet, along with other innovative artists, had to change tactics and display their work independently to be seen. Regarding Monet’s decision to find a way around the Salon, Gladwell states:

“We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can. But rarely do we stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest.” [3]

Monet had to avoid the innovator’s blind spot and see that relying on the Salon to adapt their exhibits to the Impressionists was folly. Like Monet, entrepreneurs must also understand the bigger picture when trying to create something new which requires working around, often difficult to see, obstacles to innovation.

1. Eric Ries. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (New York: Crown Business/Random House, Inc., 2011), 9-10.
2. Ron Adner. The Wide Lens: What Successful Innovators See That Others Miss (New York: Portfolio/Penguin Group(USA) Inc., 2013), 2-4.
3. Malcolm Gladwell. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), 68.

Learning by Experimenting: When Just Doing is Not Enough

Innovation requires dedication to challenging the status quo. And, in order for the world to change through innovative thinking, new ideas must have impact and spread. These two statements are not ground-breaking, but they represent formidable tests of a would-be innovator.

It’s been my experience that aspiring innovators struggle with testing their own assumptions while dogmatically fighting to protect their ideas from being challenged. These untested ideas become the accepted truth for a would-be innovator. Regretfully, there have been many times in my own entrepreneurial career when I stubbornly stuck to flawed assumptions without testing whether an idea has a positive impact and can spread through the world.

Master artist remains a student

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit Painted in 1882 by John Singer Sargent

Acquired from Boston Museum of Fine Arts Website (MFA.org) on January 1st, 2014

One of my favorite paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is the  “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” by John Singer Sargent. This oil painting is unique, capturing what feels like an impromptu snapshot in the life of four sisters. Displayed next to the painting are two tall vases shown in the piece, increasing the effect that you are looking at a real life scene and not a contrived sitting for a portrait.

In describing how innovative the painting was at the time, the MFA notes that:

“While some critics praised Sargent’s technical abilities, most found the composition troubling for its unconventional approach to portraiture.” [1]

Now showing at the MFA is a special exhibition of John Singer Sargent watercolors. Being a fan of Sargent’s other works, I was excited to see this temporary exhibit of more than 90 paintings.

The exhibition is arranged by the theme (as an alternative to arranging by date or location), so it gives visitors an opportunity to see how Sargent experimented and progressed as an artist. The notes next to the individual paintings also describe how Sargent worked alongside and learned from other great artists from that time.

Failure is important

As Eric Ries talks about in his book The Lean Startup, failure is critical to an entrepreneur’s progress towards becoming an innovator. Ries makes the point that an entrepreneur who cannot fail will not be able to learn how to succeed. He states:

“…If the plan is to see what happens, a team is guaranteed to succeed–at seeing what happens–but won’t necessarily gain validated learning.” [2]

Just as John Singer Sargent iterated and practiced on numerous sketches of the human form to refine his craft, so must an entrepreneur give form to true innovation through validated learning by experimentation and testing.

1. Acquired from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston website – MFA.org
2. Eric Ries. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (New York: Crown Business/Random House, Inc., 2011), 56.

Protective Armor Against Terror

How meeting one of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing changed my perspective on studying history through art.


Art studies the world, in all its manifestations, and renders back to us not simply how we see, but how we react to what we see and what we know as a consequence of that seeing.
– Kit White [1]

A few weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing I was, much like the rest of the community in the Boston area, trying to get back to life as normal. This “normal” activity included going to a bakery one Saturday morning for breakfast and a session of drawing. The seating area in the bakery was busy and after purchasing a bagel and cream cheese I began to hunt for a spot to sit down. Upon seeing an open table right next to a gentleman sitting quietly with his coffee, I rushed over to set the food tray down in order to stake out the spot. I noticed the man at the neighboring table had severe injuries to both arms, and I immediately got the impression this person would be open (not always the case in Boston) to a friendly gesture.

For several minutes, while working up the courage to offer half of my breakfast to a stranger, I began to draw in my sketch pad the next in a series of illustrations inspired by a samurai armor exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (please see Contributing to the Conversation). The noise of the busy bakery made the offer to share breakfast hard to hear, but the man at the next table understand my intention and graciously accepted half of the bagel. It was several more minutes before he very politely interrupted my drawing with a wave—I had by that time put in earphones—to share that his injuries had come from the Boston Marathon bombing.

We sat in conversation for ten minutes or so about the extent of the injuries suffered– a nearly detached hand and severe ongoing headaches– as well as discussing the medical treatment received over the prior weeks. He explained that the physical trauma was devastating, but there was also a constant mental anguish about reliving the experience in memory. My heart went out to this man as he shared his struggle to cope with the after effects of such a terrible ordeal. It turns out that on the morning of the attack he was in the very same bakery where we were sitting, and the staff had wished him well before he went off to the marathon festivities.

Once the story was finished we did not speak again until the man got up to leave. As he was collecting his various bags and items, I offered him one of the samurai drawings with the grand hope that the armor depicted could act as some symbolic shield to the mental trauma, or at the very least some small distraction.

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Kit White. 101 Things to Learn in Art School (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011), 6.

Contributing to the Conversation

A lesson from Kit White: how creating art adds to the historic dialogue.


Art is a continuing dialogue that stretches back through thousands of years.
– Kit White [1]

My favorite spot to visit in Boston is the Museum of Fine Arts. This place has numerous opportunities to get lost in rooms full of spectacular artwork. While wandering through the MFA I have discovered art from around the world, which many times has traveled to this place and time over hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. The last trip to the museum offered the chance to see a new exhibit, “Samurai! Armor From the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection,” and I acted on some inspiration to draw–this was my first time drawing at the museum–some of the samurai armor on display.

While I was drawing quietly in front of a magnificent suit of armor (shown above) an art student from a local university came over to see the sketch. He seemed very thoughtful and interested, so I offered him a pencil and paper. This offer was eagerly accepted and we both sat quietly working for the next ten minutes or so. After finishing the drawing he gave a sincere thanks and went on to explore the rest of the collection.

There were many objects that caught my attention, and by the end of the exhibit the original sheet of paper was filled with a half-dozen sketches.  I was sitting on a bench in front of the final display when an older gentleman came over to chat. He had trouble talking and hearing, but it was surprisingly easy for us to connect over the beauty of the samurai exhibition. As the conversation gradually came to a close  it  became apparent in my mind that this man should have the drawings. The gift was happily accepted.

The opportunity to connect over artwork with strangers at the MFA reminded me of a lesson from Kit White in the book 101 Things to Learn in Art School. Art is the opportunity to make “…your contribution to that dialogue. Therefore, be conscious of what has come before you and the conversation that surrounds you.” [1]

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Kit White. 101 Things to Learn in Art School (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011), 16.