Starting from the end — Lean Decision Development [Opinion]

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Deciding on a path to take can be difficult. (Image via alittlestarlette.wordpress.com)

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Medium.

I was fortunate enough to take the Lean LaunchPad course with Steve Blank at the Haas Business School at Berkeley, which taught Customer Development, a structured methodology to think about startup ideas and search for a profitable and repeatable business model.

At its core, the model is about hypothesis testing (‘getting outside the building’), learning, and iterating  - before committing too much time and money.

In a similar spirit to hypothesis testing but following a different approach is Design Sprints, developed and adopted internally at Google. The idea is a fast design process to learning without building and launching.

I see both approaches as complementary. I’d use Design Sprints for fast iteration, to search for a product-market fit via a low-fidelity mockups (each cycle is one week). I would then use the Customer Development approach to validate the other business model aspects to form a well-investigated execution blueprint (time duration is about 10 weeks).

Validation requires self-discipline

Though both are focused on startups and product, the caveat is to possess the self-discipline to adhere to those principles.

I experienced this first hand during the Steve Blank course. Just two weeks into the course, my team wanted to start coding and build the product. Instead, we should have spent more time ascertaining how many customers will want or need such a product before writing one line of code. This is also the idea behind Design Sprints.

It makes sense to validate assumptions before committing to a journey, but it is tricky to do it right. I attribute this to three types of biases: personal ego (it is right because I think so), social loafing (it is right because the founder says so), and group bias (it is right because we think so).

Each methodology is designed to add structure and clarity of thoughts in an efficient and systematic way, and protect the decision maker from the costly pitfalls of bias.

The ‘decision mode’ is intrinsically uncomfortable due to the many unknowns it faces, and that’s why we tend to shorten it. We prefer to jump into the ‘doing mode’ that puts us back into the flow and in our comfort zones.

Applying the lean decision concept to the wider world

I am proposing a Lean Decision Development concept for making strategic decisions.

Some examples are: what field should I choose for college; should I do an MBA, or a PhD, or create my own company, or join a company, and if so, what type of company -  early-stage, late-stage, or public companies, and in which fields?

It’s important to note the difference between strategic decisions and tactical day-to-day, or week-to-week decisions. A strategic decision leads to a journey where significant time, resources, and efforts are invested. And as time is the most precious asset, it begs two fundamental questions:

  1. Why should I take the journey in the first place, what is the end goal, what is the return being sought?

  2. How to choose which journey has the best return on investment? This question builds on the first.

In Lean Decision Development, I advocate for an Introspection Phase (to find what resonates with me as an individual), then followed by an Inquisitive Phase by going “outside the building” to conduct journey sprints to try to figure out what lies at the end of each journey, before committing to the journey.

Introspection Phase: getting the values directions right, and then sailing for true North. In this phase, the question is more about why take the journey. The focus is on me as an individual, my ambitions and values system, what I am good at, and what I have energy for. It is my mission statement.

Inquisitive Phase through Journey Sprints: imagining the journey is complete, then what? As a thought experiment, I like to hypothesize about what’s at the end of the journey, and validate my hypotheses through an inquisitive and outward-looking investigation. Do the results match my expectations?

This phase begins with research of primary sources. It involves asking the right people, reading, and researching until I develop an evidence-based confidence in my assessment that the journey is worth the investment.

For instance, let’s assume I want to work at the United Nations, and for this reason, I will spend $150,000 and two years pursuing an MBA from a top business school because I heard that this is what they look for . Well, before I go that route, let me ask recruiters at the UN whether this is really what I need.

The objective of this phase is to double-check one’s assumptions by answering: 1) Is this really what I desired? 2) Am I aware of the risks? 3) Did I collect adequate information prior to embarking in the journey do I know what support (people, information, resources) I need along the way? 4) Did I get a sense of the boundary between the known and the unknown, the tried and the untried?

Decision Time: making the best educated guess. I probably formed the best educated guess, which was reached in an efficient way, about which journey path to choose from my candidate options. It is time to stop procrastinating, and start doing.

The Doing Mode:  I have now made my decision and committed to investing my resources to reach a certain milestone. While the majority of resources are allocated to execution, value creation, and the discovery of new information by doing, a small amount of resources needs to be spent learning how the world is changing and how this affects my journey.

Reflection: while in the doing mode, I discover new information and I gain more knowledge. I create value and make progress. But, am I still headed in the right direction, and what does “right” means?

Am I true to my true North that I formed in the Introspection Phase? Does my true North need recalibration as I gain wisdom? Should I persevere or pivot? This is where I have to step out of the Doing Mode and back into the Decision Mode to reflect.  

In the Lean Decision Development context, the hierarchical synthesis of information should be towards the True North — am I still aligned and true to the reason why I started this journey in the first place, and how is it progressing, how is it fitting together, what to change, what to do better, and should I course-correct. This never stops, and this is a continual state of mind.

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