Nike’s been telling us to Just Do It since 1988. The Latin poet Horace gave us carpe diem around year zero. The Jewish writer Hillel said “If not now, when?” about a hundred years before that. So, now, it appears we’ve had enough time to soak up the message: the novel concept has hit management academia and is now taking the always-epiphanous world of business books by storm.
There is a fast-growing school of thought, pioneered by highly successful serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank, called the Lean Startup, preaching that the ideal way of launching successful products and businesses is to go to market with the absolute minimum viable product (MVP) you could conceivably trick someone into purchasing and then iterating that product based on consumer response, appealing to a wider and wider audience as you progress, and potentially ending up with an entirely different product or company than you started out with. Technological innovations help reduce the cost of product development, and so too reduce the cost of failure. For example, Weebly, a free website development tool, combined with one of the plethora of online payment systems available today, is all one needs to launch an e-business. So why wait?
This trial-and-error, learning-by-doing approach to business goes against the longstanding traditions of business schooling, where both process and planning have reigned uncontested for decades. The authors and drivers of the Lean movement have commenced an academic crusade to rid the world of 100-page business plans and excessive prototyping. The theory goes that a moment spent before launch is a moment without revenue and without customer feedback, which also brings your company a moment closer to bankruptcy. Early adopters are more forgiving than the average widget buyer and you will thus be spared any uproarious outcries from your customers about your failings.
This theory has a lot of merit, and some highly successful examples to support it. Groupon started as a Wordpress blog – it was called The Point and tried to get groups of people together to solve problems, a far cry from a daily local deals site. Mammoth online shoe retailer Zappos filled its earliest orders by sending actual humans out to actual local San Francisco retailers to buy shoes, hand pack them, and ship them off. Authors and professors vehemently argue for the universal applicability of the theory and irresponsibility of doing otherwise, trying to show large, languorous companies that they too can inspire their ranks to innovate and improve. Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, for example, launched its Square payment program in 7,000 stores simultaneously, forgoing the traditional test-store strategy.
Not everyone agrees with this mantra. Mark A. Cohen, a Columbia Business School professor and ex-Sears Canada CEO, had harsh words for Starbucks: “It’s a bad strategy and a bad philosophy, and I think when consumers are exposed to this behavior, they’re just ripped.” (It may be worth mentioning that Sears Canada is about as forward thinking as Kodak and is closing stores rapidly) There are of course the James Dysons of the world, creating no fewer than 5,127 prototypes before selling anything at all, and developing innovative and improbable products like a game-changing vacuum. Steve Jobs was maniacal about perfecting products ahead of unveilings, setting launch dates back by months just to get features like the world’s first buttons with rounded corners on computer screens. There are other industries that require this attention to pre-launch detail. The author of this post, for one, is happy that Boeing and Airbus don’t launch MVPs and wait for feedback.
So whose strategy is the right one? Like most things in life, the correct choice likely lies somewhere in the middle, requiring some perspective and strategic thinking rather than blind and ardent allegiance to one school of thought or the other. If you’re the Four Seasons, delivering anything less than perfection is a failure and the idea of testing a new process, product or system on a consumer is utterly blasphemous. Likewise, selling multi-million dollar airplanes that ferry fragile lives over oceans and across continents requires flawless delivery the first time around. Messing up someone’s $2 payment for a coffee on the other hand may cause minor irritation, but you’ll probably see the caffeine enthusiast back again the next day. Even Steve Jobs acquiesced from time to time – just try to copy and paste something using the first iPhone.
There is a real battle between action and inaction, progress and inertia, accomplishment and perfection, and it’s worth considering the lean philosophy when facing new challenges. The articulate and famed American novelist and professor David Foster Wallace explores this trade-off in a PBS radio show called Blank-on-Blank. Whether launching a venture or trying a new recipe at home, there are risks associated with striving for perfection and with swinging the bat right out of the gate - weighing them with objective perspective should do the job. Chances are if you're cooking for the Queen you may want everything just right, but if you're hungry, you should probably just do it.