What I Learned at the Lean LaunchPad Accelerator Program with Steve Blank

Very recently back from a Lean LaunchPad Incubators/Accelerators Program at Columbia University, led by Steve Blank and a host of other notables including Jerry Engel and Eric Koester, hosted by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter). Attendees included folks from academia, start-up land, government agencies, venture capital investors, healthcare institutes, and large corporations from as close by as City College of NY and as far afield as Aukland, NZ.

Over two very intense days, we all focused on how to apply Lean principles to the problems of incubating and accelerating important new ideas and initiatives.

As you can imagine, I learned a lot, but I wanted to capture for you all some of the most salient items for technology ventures:

1. Teams are jazzed about Lean processes and implementing rapid innovation in their organizations, but it still takes cultural change, preferably from the top, to make this new way of innovating really work. This is true even - and possibly especially - in very large organizations where "the way we've always done things" has gotten calcified. To combat the inertia that seems to inevitably be a part of large organizations (and that can "suck the air" out of innovation projects), Intuit launched a company-wide innovation initiative 7 years ago. Founder and Chairman Scott Cook recognized that it was critical for the company to continually re-imagine its business, and to strive to get ever closer to customers in the process. Today, the company encourages all employees to carve out about 10% of their time to pursue innovative ideas, and engineers are encouraged to devote 20% of their time to seeking innovation, leveraging best practices from design theory, velocity, and lean launchpad methodologies. This is the kind of company-wide commitment participants at the seminar agreed is critical to fostering innovation as a cultural change.

2. Document, document, document. If Darwin hadn't captured his initial hypotheses as he was preparing to test them, we might all be living in a world in which he validated that the Galapagos islands contain sea turtles. It's critical for product teams to crisply lay out exactly what they are ready to assert and test about the market, right up front. The reason for this is that if we don't, it becomes too easy later on to convert relatively random learnings into deep insights, and to say that these were the things we wanted to learn all along, and our project has been a success because we learned them. This perfectly natural tendency to declare success in murky circumstances runs counter to the need to get real data to make product decisions, and to run real experiments to get at that real data.

3.  Incubating and accelerating are two sides of the same coin. Many people believe that rapid innovation methodologies are only really applicable for new start-ups with small, hungry teams and a vision to rock the world. What I learned in New York (and pretty much suspected well before that) is that no matter where you are in your product development process, you need to continue to focus on customer discovery, customer validation, solution validation, and rigorous testing. When you are incubating a brand new concept or product, the process is extremely difficult but can literally save you years of wasted development. But just as important, when you're accelerating market adoption for something you've already built, or looking to see how to evolve the product to meet ever-changing market demands, it's equally critical to get close to the customer and stay there. The truth is, your chances of missing the mark are nearly the same, even if you're in the process of iterating on an existing idea. We've seen this with many technology companies, who, eager to outflank their competition, overbuild for the market and are forced to downgrade or deprecate their product to drive actual adoption. Not fun for anyone involved.

I hope to join Steve again sometime soon to help lead another of these launchpad courses - I always come away energized and excited to share my new knowledge with friends across the technology industry.


Also: Techstars Seattle Demo Day on Oct. 24th! Register here: https://smore.com/g28z