Minimum viable product vs. minimum viable idea

If you want to do something big, it is true that you need to start small. But don’t confuse starting small for thinking small.

If you’ve read the Steve Jobs biography, there’s a chapter that describe’s Steve’s ambitions to create the original Macintosh. While it’s cliche to go to a Steve Jobs example when talking about stuff like this, I think that the quote about Steve really does apply to a lot of people and situations where innovation and excellence is king:

Steve did the impossible because he didn’t know it was impossible.

There are dozens of factors that separate great products from mediocre ones and great product companies from mediocre ones. Same goes for suppliers of consulting and services. One factor I’ve always been interested in, in particular, is whether a company lets itself try to change the world (or at least a tiny part of it). Does a company have an attitude that builds their products or services out of a construct of what’s possible in the world around them, or do they think about what they would do if there were zero boundaries or restrictions? Companies typically fall on one side of this line, or the other.

How many meetings happen every day where people try to shrink ideas with statements like:

  • “That won’t work”
  • “That isn’t how things are done here”
  • “People won’t get it”
  • “You can’t change those people”
  • “That’s not realistic”

It happens all day, every day at most places. The issue here isn’t that these people are wrong. In fact, they are probably right. They are filtering ideas through their understanding of what is possible and not possible, and weighing in. What these people are seeking is not the minimum viable manifestation of a grander idea; they are seeking a minimal, compatible, compliant, innocuous idea.

The problem with this approach is that it is destructive in nature. It directly shrinks the ambition, not the product (and therefore indirectly shrinks the product, irrevocably, too). It shrinks creativity, disruption, innovation, and other things that make amazing people, places, and work…well…amazing. By shrinking the original goal or idea, iterations that happen down the road are destined to be bolt-on rather than a seamless, elegant growth in product maturity (have you ever seen a franken-product or software duct taped together at every possible point?).

What we need to be seeking instead is to launch the minimum viable product. The simplest viable form of a big idea. A crack in the rock where water can enter, later expanding and breaking the rock apart. Nobody has a crystal ball and can see into the future of a product, service, or company with absolute certainty, but if the product is a result of the minimum viable idea, we do know for certain that what happens later will be a retrofitted mess, rather than a part of a grander plan.

When you think about where you work, are you trying to accomplish something grandiose by starting small and iterating toward the endgame of best-in-class sophistication, features, process, communication, etc., or is your company trying to avoid the grandiose, stay in the now, and think small?

This is no different for the analyst than it is for the product manager, visionary, or any other role you admire in amazing companies, charities, or in artists, etc. What can we be “thinking big” about? What can we be focused on that would revolutionize our company or our industry, and then start with the smaller pieces that get us into the cracks in the rocks? There are so many amazing opportunities in multi-channel, mobile, social, with our web sites, in testing, in better understanding our audience, and so much more. Big, big ideas.

The Mac was built one piece at a time. One line of code, one board, one nickel-plated screw of the case, one part of the mouse and choice of typography for the keyboard keys…each at a time. The Mac was built at the micro level, fueled by a macro vision (and the vision itself was about what computing would look like 10, 20, 30 years beyond; not just for that single computer).

The world around us requires us to execute small, but what’s important is that we don’t let anyone force us to think small.

This is how we think about our products, our consulting, our clients’ businesses and our own business. And I can promise you, working this way is way more fun.