Tag Archives: The Lean Startup

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.