Innovation Junkies Podcast

Ash Maurya and Lean Innovation

The Jeffs chat with Ash Maurya, best-selling author & founder of Lean Stack. Don’t miss these topics of lean scale & innovation, including: what it means for startups to scale lean, how to get teams to understand why innovation is important, & unexpected or unique places that the Lean Canvas has been applied successfully.

Jeff Standridge: This is Jeff Standridge, and this is the Innovation Junkie’s Podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategy, and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Over the next half hour, we’re going to be sharing specific strategies, tactics and tips that you can use to grow your business. No matter the size, no matter the industry, and no matter the geography. Weekly, we’ll bring in a top mover and shaker, someone who’s done something unbelievable with his or her business, and we’ll get deep. We’ll uncover specific strategies, tactics, and tools that they’ve used to help you achieve your business goals. Welcome to the Innovation Junkie’s Podcast.

Hey guys, if you’re looking to put your business on the fast track to achieving sustained strategic growth, this episode is sponsored by the team at Innovation Junkie. To learn more about our GrowthDX, go to innovationjunkie.com\growthdx. Now let’s get on with the show.

Jeff Standridge: Hey guys, welcome to the Innovation Junkie’s Podcast. My name’s Jeff Standridge.

Jeff Amerine: Hey, and this is Jeff Amerine. Glad to be back for another episode.

Jeff Standridge: Always good to be doing this with you, Jeff.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. And you know what, today, we got the great fortune of having one of the sort of seminal leading characters in the startup universe here with us. If Steve Blank calls himself the modern godfather of the modern startup movement, Ash Maurya is got to be right there as one of the key leaders. I’ll tell you a little bit about his background. So Ash is the author of two best-selling books, Running Lean and Scaling Lean. And Running Lean is really the basis for the Lean Canvas. To get to personalize that a little bit, the Running Lean and the Lean Canvas are two key tools that we’ve used in the Arkansas startup scene for the past 10 years. And it’s taught in all the classes now. It’s really been a pretty incredible impact in terms of what that book has done. And Ash is often praised for providing some of the best and most practical advice, actionable advice for entrepreneurs and innovators all over the world.

He’s shown how you can de-risk a new venture, a new product, or a new service through this technique of challenging your assumptions, doing great customer discovery, and then documenting in this evolving one-page template we call the Lean Canvas. He’s been featured in places like Inc. magazine, Forbes, and Fortune. He’s in UT Austin. He’s worked a lot with Techstars and Capital Factory. He guest lectures at some of the leading institutions like MIT and Harvard and UT Austin. And he’s just all around a fantastic guy, actually visited here over 10 years ago when we were at the beginning of a lot of the scene activity here. And we’re just really lucky to have Ash Maurya with us here today. Hey Ash. How are you?

Ash Maurya: Hi there. I’m doing great. Thanks for having me on.

Jeff Amerine: Well, we’re glad to have you.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, it is in fact, a pleasure as Jeff Amerine said, your tools and techniques are taught in universities and accelerators and incubators and entrepreneurial support organizations certainly all over our state. And I know all over the world. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve pointed people to your resources. And so it’s really an honor to have you with us today.

Ash Maurya: Thank you. Appreciate that.

Jeff Amerine: Before we get into the really serious stuff, which startup and innovation related stuff is, we’re going to start off on a lighter note and that is with, who’s your favorite comedian? So Ash, why don’t you lead us off?

Ash Maurya: I’m a big Seinfeld fan. I have been, I guess, ever since I first stumbled into the show back, I guess when it first aired. But yeah, I actually enjoyed the show itself, but even Jerry Seinfeld as a person has just been quite inspirational to watch just the way he developed, I guess his own voice. He did a lot of testing, a lot of what we teach in the lean with experimentation. I mean, he’s a very disciplined comedian and goes out on tests and open mic bars and has this kind of same mindset that we do, which is just go out there and get booed on stage so that when you’re on the bigger stage you don’t get put off.

Jeff Amerine: You stole one of my favorites, but Jeff, what about you?

Jeff Standridge: Man, I can never answer these questions with just one or two. Traditionally, I was a huge fan of George Carlin and in his routine on sports, what constitutes a sport and what doesn’t, is phenomenal. Then I really began to love more recently is Jim Gaffigan. Gaffigan, Gaffigan, wherever you pronounce his name. But I will tell you, I mean that from a standup perspective, it’s that, but I have just recently come across a series on Apple TV called Ted Lasso with Jason Sudeikis or whatever, how you pronounce his name. Jeff, you think you get tired of my dad jokes. This is like 40 minutes of dad joke, followed by dad joke, followed by dad. It’s the best. Whatever you’re watching on TV right now, Ted Lasso is better.

Jeff Amerine: I believe it.

Jeff Standridge: So Ash, obviously you’ve been around the startup movement for a long time and your later book Scaling Lean, this podcast tends to deal with a little less on the startup side and more on the scaling and the innovation and leadership side. And so we’d love to talk a little more about this concept of scaling lean and how you made that transition, a lean startup to scaling lean and kind of what that means for our listeners.

Ash Maurya: Sure. So I definitely got into the whole lean startup movement with the initial kind of ideation to initial launch of the version one of the product, which might be what we will call in the lean world, the minimum viable product. But as I got past those stages, I began to see that the real challenge was, even before scaling is how do you get stakeholders on board? You can go off and do the lean thing, show that there is a market, show that there’s early validation, but how do you tell that bigger story of where this idea is headed. Essentially the world of metrics, as we all know in the earlier stages of any product, we can’t rely on financial metrics. We need something else. We threw out the term in the early days innovation metrics, but it wasn’t very clearly defined.

And so really the Scaling Lean book takes a much deeper dive into what are those leading indicator metrics that we can actually hone in on so that we see the bigger picture and get our stakeholders involved, which is just as critical for the success of any idea. I’ll just add one more piece there. And then we can definitely dive deeper as needed. The other aspect of scaling lean was how do we take this practice of lean thinking and turn it into a discipline, which again, if you want to get into a scaling stage, we know that systems and processes are critical. It’s not enough just for a handful of people in the company to be doing the lean thing and everyone else not. And so how do we really get everyone on board where there’s something for everyone and as a team, they can really practice or take this practice of lean forward. So that’s kind of the other topic covered in that book.

Jeff Standridge: And what have you found in terms of feedback from people reading the book, in terms of how it’s impacted them?

Ash Maurya: I would say, there’s a little model that we introduced called attraction model, and the idea is very simple, and we even sometimes call it attraction roadmap. That has probably been the biggest idea that I think people have taken to heart, much like the lean canvas is for the business planning story. The traction model is essentially the replacement for the forecast model. And the challenge again, with traditional forecast models with Excel spreadsheets, for instance, is that we get lost in the numbers. There are way too many numbers. It ends up being a very fictional plan. As someone once told me, it’s essentially a layer of lies that compound on each other. And the next thing you know, you have this fantastical model that even you don’t understand. It just becomes this monster. And then of course, we spend several hours or days trying to undo the fantastical model and make it more real.

So we just threw that out entirely and said, “Let’s just start with a bottoms-up model.” And this is where borrowing from the world of physics. The Fermi estimation and ways of doing like raw order of magnitude estimations is a technique that we use to do that. And literally in a five minute exercise, one can tell whether an idea has a ballpark of succeeding or not. And that one exercise, I would say, people have come back to as much as the same effect as with the lean canvas. You use it once, and then you think it was a very simple exercise, but there is some leftover transformation in your thinking, the same thing with Fermi estimate exercises. You do that once. And it pulls you in deeper to really try to now understand why this model worked or didn’t work. What are the levers of growth? And so that’s probably the biggest thing we hear, I guess, since I published the book.

Jeff Standridge: Very good. I see your shirt love the problem, not the solution. And that is a mantra that we have certainly. It’s certainly become the startup mantra, right? Don’t fall in love with your idea. Don’t fall in love with your solution until you really understand the problem. Have you seen that tendency that we have to fall in love with our ideas and to fall in love with our assumptions and our preconceptions? Have you seen that follow into the scaling lean approach as well, where it’s just this constant nag at the entrepreneur or the innovator to fall back on those assumptions?

Ash Maurya: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I guess the word mantra is right, and it’s kind of a reminder. I wear the shirt all the time, because it’s so easy to slip back into the solution world, especially when you even think you’re out of it. So oftentimes, we talked about the early stage. This is so critical back in the early stage to focus on problems before first solutions. And then those that do that. Once they have launched a product, feel like, okay, now all we have to do is listen to our customers. The challenge there is that customers have this exact same bias. If you look at many of the feature requests, they really ask many of the things they want building the product. They too are solutions and not really kind of deep dives or root causes of their problems. And so it’s not surprising that when we give them what they want, many times they look at it and say, oh, that’s not really what I wanted. And for some reason is not getting the job done.

So yeah, so that’s a trap we fall into. And of course we then anoint ourselves as being the product people. Like we know the direction and the solutions to build. And so that’s the other trap we easily fall into. So it is an ever, it’s really our mindset number one, that we continually reinforce it and kind of remind teams, not just in those early stages, but throughout the product life cycle, on keeping that front and center.

Jeff Standridge: I know I certainly continue to use it as we work with corporate innovators as well. And they’re thinking about a new innovation in their respective organizations or a new change initiative, or what have you, is stepping back and asking, what’s the problem we’re really trying to solve here? That’s been very impactful on me.

Jeff Amerine: Well, and that’s actually kind of a good follow-up is, we’ve clearly taken the lean canvas methodology into companies of all sizes, including the largest that you can imagine, because they want to try to capture that lightning and that agility that is associated with the startup scene. But as you are advising product development teams and large companies about how to avoid that confirmation bias and how to do a good job with customer discovery and customer development. At what point is it acceptable for them to begin to introduce the solution they have in mind in that process of customer discovery. I’d really be interested in your thoughts on that, because frankly, there’s a lot of debate even amongst us about when’s the right time to say, well, here’s kind of what we have. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Ash Maurya: Yeah. So one of the things I’ve learned, and this is, again, what age does to you, is definitely when in the earlier years of this, I would be very prescriptive and telling people, forget about the solutions. Start with customer and problem. And then I began to realize that people were just faking it, and they sometimes even unconsciously, they would start out filling the lean canvas with the customer and problem box. But when you already have a solution in your mind, you can’t unthink it. It’s just impossible. And so that’s the hammer problem. And you already know what you want to build a hammer. Everything looks like a nail. So it’s like, who’s going to use this hammer, server customer. What problems do we solve with this hammer? And that’s what we listen to the problem box. So that’s what you unlabeled the innovator’s bias.

And it’s just this premature kind of love or bias for the solution, which is rather than fighting it, we just have to admit it’s there. So in recent years, maybe about a year and a half ago, I came up with this other concept of the innovators gift. And this is a way where rather than lecturing and telling people don’t introduce a solution or forget about the solution, I’m all for, if you have a solution, let’s talk about it. But let’s see how it fits into the world. And so we borrowed some concepts from jobs to be done, kind of the theory of jobs to be done. And one of the premises there is that innovation is fundamentally about causing a switch. And what that means is that there’s always going to be an existing alternative, which is actually a box on the lean canvas. And the new solution has to replace the old one in the customer’s mind.

And so that’s a very easy way then to say, let’s look at your lean canvas. I want to see your customer problem solution. I want to see the existing alternative and everything needs to connect. So tell me how your solution is better than the current popular existing alternative. And if that doesn’t connect back with the problems you are listing, then there’s oftentimes a disconnect. So that’s one technique we use even just in the lean canvas to make sure that like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces have fit. And if one can not make that argument, even on paper, that our solution needs to exist. And here’s why then that’s oftentimes a trigger for going and doing some problem discovery work. And even if they can justify it, but there’s no evidence, then again, that’s an easy way to go and explore existing alternatives and really be able to then get evidence on all those problems that you listed on your lean canvas, true or made up? So that’s kind of how we segue into that space.

Jeff Standridge: It’s interesting you say that, because I too have experienced the same thing where it was very difficult. It’s like you’re swimming upstream to get them to step away from their innovators bias, as you said. And one of the things that I have done, which is along the same lines is to say, okay, let’s acknowledge it. You have these inspirations. You have these aspirations. You’ve been asking this “what if” question. What if we did this? What if we did? So let’s state what that is. Now, I’m going to ask you to suspend it for a period of time, and let’s back away from it. And just having them write it down, and stick it on the wall many times and then consciously asking them to suspend their bias. So I love your technique there. It’s another good way to do that. That’s fantastic.

Jeff Amerine: Ash, let’s take a little bit of a different approach to this. I mean, you have been such a change maker over the course of the last 15 years and really have built on the work that Steve Blank and Eric Cruz and others had done. And I think they’ve taken it to new levels in many respects. But as you think about going from a situation where you have innovators in a large company to a culture of innovation, what observations and advice do you have based on all that you’ve seen over the course of the last 15 years, about how to grow this, not just the mechanics of the techniques, but how to really get people immersed in understanding why innovation is important.

Ash Maurya: Yeah. So I guess, again, over the years, I have recognized that it’s less about the merits of a framework. And again, those of us that have been around the product development block a few times know that methodologies come and go for good reasons. But there’s always going to be this new promise of a silver bullet. And so there’s going to be this reluctance. And when we start talking about that kind of transformation across an organization, one it has to start small, the classic let’s just go and buy everyone copies of books or make everyone do lean canvases is not going to create that change. The other thing that I have observed is that the biggest obstacle in behavior change is again, not knowing what’s even right for us, or what’s good for us, but rather it’s getting some of the inertia and friction in the earlier parts of the adoption.

So then some of these are habits. We have been taught to build products a certain way. We have been relying on certain metrics, certain ways of doing things. And so undoing and unlearning those things is not as easy as we sometimes just think it is. I guess the best example of this as looking at our own personal lives and looking at things we have tried to get better on. We all know, for instance, that eating healthy is good, exercising is good, saving money is good. Yet many of us struggle with that, not because we know it’s not whether we know whether it’s good or not. It’s just these other distractions or habits get in the way. So we have been taking that perspective, and I personally got very interested in the work on habit forming, I guess, kind of models and loops and things like that.

And so we have been incorporating some of those techniques. To answer your question more directly or how this comes in. Every change needs to start with a trigger. So there has to be some kind of a triggering event. In the early days, big companies would sometimes call us. One of the triggering events was just the whole lean startup movement. They’re like, “Oh, we see startups doing this. We’d like to get better at this.” There’s usually some champion of the company that says, “We’d like to put some products through this and test it”. And so that’s an example of a triggering event.

Another could be just disruption. So our newspapers and other post offices have called us in the past saying we can tell our business model is getting attacked from all sides. We need to think very differently. That’s an example. So whenever we get called in, in the larger organization, I’m actually chasing whoever’s making that request. I’m chasing for what is that triggering event that made them say we want to do this. And I think that helps a lot with understanding what kind of either consulting or coaching or workshop that you follow up with to instill that.

At the end of the day, what we try to do at Lean Stack is help that stakeholder, that champion identify a very visible product in the company where we can ideally pit it against the old way of doing things in the company. And in a three-month timeframe, be able to show some business model outcome, because if you can achieve that, that in itself creates a big bang triggering event within the organization. Not because they didn’t lean canvas for good lean startup or any of those things, but here’s this team that in three months managed to get so much further than we have ever gotten.

Then people are interested. Then people want to understand what did they just do. And that allows us to then go in and bring in other systems and processes, and start just putting that more into the organization. So that’s kind of been our technique is search for it. And it’s again, no different than technology or product adoption. We are looking for the early adopters, but one of the things that goes along with that are triggering events and time-boxed desired outcomes that those champions want. And if we can make it highly visible, then all of a sudden, it basically creates that whole switching story, here’s the old way we build products. Here’s this new way this team just did without sometimes permission or without a lot of top-down oversight. And they were able to get such an incredible outcome. Why is that? And that curiosity, I think, is what sparks the next stage of rolling out the process within the organization.

Jeff Standridge: So Ash, tell us about, you mentioned a couple of industries that I wouldn’t have thought of using the lean canvas, particularly the postal service or something like that. So I’d be curious. What are some of the most unexpected or unique places that you have seen the lean canvas applied successfully?

Ash Maurya: Sure. So if you had asked me that question 10 years ago, I would have probably given you a long list, because even in the first edition of running lean, I put in a little disclaimer saying that this works in web-based startups. Because I work in those spaces, and I know this to be true and use at your own peril. But over the years, I have invited all kinds of domains and ideas and gone in sometimes rather reluctantly or rather nervously and will this really create any major insight. But what I’ve come to recognize over the years is that the lean canvas is fundamentally modeling customers’ problems and solutions. And so I asked the cheeky question, if you have customers, which every business should, then the lean canvas can get that model down on paper.

And so to answer your question, I would say that I’m no longer surprised, because it just comes down to modeling, essentially that switching story, as I described it. You can go into any industry, and if there’s a customer, there’s a current way of doing a certain job, the job of or the task that you’d say of innovation is creating a better way of getting that same job done. And you can model that story on a lean canvas. We have built a few other tools like that traction model where we now want to answer the viability side of that story. Yes, on the lean canvas, there are boxes like key metrics and revenue streams. But we want to go a bit deeper. And that’s where that back of the envelope calculation helps.

There’s a third model that we recently introduced called the customer forces model or the customer forces canvas. And that’s the behavioral kind of modeling of the user story or the customer story. So what are the habits? What are the things that are holding them back? But if you bring it at that level, at that meta level, I would say we can really take any behavior, which innovation is fundamentally about behavior change. We can take any behavior, and model that out. And you can apply that kind of thinking really across any type of domain. Principles stay the same. What will, of course, inevitably change are going to be tactics. So when you’re building a rocket ship, like some people are that are planning to go to Mars, the timelines and the MVP, and all the reduction to tactics are going to be different than if you were doing yet another digital product, for instance.

Jeff Amerine: That’s super, I mean, it’s a great insight. And the fact that you can go deeper around the customer forces is really interesting. And I think about it from a large enterprise context, is recent reports, is that the half-life for the listing of a doubt component company or whatever it is, is getting shorter every year. And it is partly, because in my estimation, there’s this ongoing battle between quarterly returns and operational efficiencies and incrementalism and innovation. And they’re going to wind up getting the short end of the stick by just about any estimation. How can the techniques and the tools, or what’s the wake-up call, I should say to large enterprises based on all you’ve seen. If you were to give them a chief innovation officer or somebody that’s been installed in one of these kind of larger companies that is intended to shake things up, what advice would you give them?

Ash Maurya: Yeah. And I think as you describe it, it is readily apparent. So we oftentimes with a few, and I mentioned triggering events in the past, but a few things have happened over the last decade or so, we are living in this entrepreneurial renaissance kind of a world where it has become cheaper than ever to build product. So that’s one of the things that has happened. So thanks to the internet and all the tools and cloud computing and globalization, it’s become cheaper than ever. So that’s great for big companies. But at the same time, it creates tons of opportunities for startups all around the world to start tackling those same kinds of problems. And so what changes there is that there are now far too many ideas chasing after the same customers. And so what that causes is a new unfair advantage, or this framing around a new unfair advantage.

In the past, it used to be the company that can build the product at the least cost. Today it is the company that can build the right product, or basically speed of learning. If a company can outlearn their competition, I believe they stand to win. And if they do this continuously, that’s where they can continually defend their business model.

So that’s how we frame this. If we can get the mindset, both for startups as well as corporates, to recognize that speed of learning is that new unfair advantage. That’s the first, you can say mindset or desired outcome, that we want to plant in their minds. And the reason that’s of course important is just this pace of innovation has become so much faster. The cycle times have become so much quicker. Switching costs have vaporized in many industries. And so for all those reasons, the only way to really win is to stay one step ahead. So that’s the first kind of acknowledgement. And once we have that, then we can start inspecting. So how do we go fast? Let’s look at the current processes we have, why are things taking longer? Let’s incrementally start chipping away at them. And that’s how we get that. At least that dialogue started.

Jeff Standridge: So Ash, tell our listeners about your organization today and where you spend the vast majority of your time.

Ash Maurya: Sure. So the company that I run is called Lean Stack. We just called it Lean Stack, because it was a collection of lean stuff in the beginning. And so we started to build up these tools. The very early iteration, our primary customer was the entrepreneur or the innovator, because we wanted to really understand how we can build a practicable methodology. And I don’t want to make it sound like there is a step-by-step, paint-by-colors approach to innovation. But there are sort of milestones and sort of risks that are prevalent at different stages. So what we have essentially done is taken the journey from idea to product market fit in scale and broken it into a series of segments. And within them we can define what success looks like. So that’s where we spend quite the early time of the company’s life trying to get that kind of codified.

Over the last several years or so, we have shifted focus as a organization to focus more now on scaling this way of thinking. So we partner with corporate startup accelerators, universities. We have built up a platform that brings in some of the curriculum that we have developed, along with the tools, along with some of these coaching techniques that I touched on here a little bit today. So how to really cause behavior change and innovators, how to really look at lean canvases and find gaping holes or at least start to create those mindset changes. And so that’s what Lean Stack does today, is we package that platform. We provide more of a train the trainer model. So we are looking more at how do we take these ideas in the framework and help them spread faster?

Jeff Standridge: And where can our listeners find you today and how can they connect with you?

Ash Maurya: So I’m on LinkedIn, Twitter, just my first name, last name is my handles, at Ash Maurya. You can probably just search Ash and Lean Canvas, and if you can spell my last time, you’ll find it there. And then leadstack.com is where we have got a lot of the platform itself. There’s a bunch of articles and things you can definitely check out and some starting courses you can start looking at as well.

Jeff Standridge: And we’d certainly point all of our listeners to your latest book, Scaling Lean and then the book prior to that Running Lean upon which these models and methodologies are based. As Jeff and I’ve said in the beginning, they’ve certainly become a bit of the Bible for the entrepreneur and the innovator.

Ash Maurya: Yeah, thanks for that.

Jeff Amerine: Ash you’ve been catalytic. I mean, we’ve said it a number of times in here, but you’ve really been a change-maker and catalytic to a lot of the things that are going on and in a very favorable way in the innovation and the entrepreneurial scene. And been an inspiration to us, and we kind of hang on every word that you say. I was listening intently this morning. There’s some new things you’re putting out that we’re going to take a close look at. So thanks for all you do. And thanks so much for coming on this morning.

Ash Maurya: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for having me again.

Jeff Standridge: It’s been a real pleasure, Ash. If there’s ever anything Jeff, or I can do for you, please, don’t hesitate to call on us.

Ash Maurya: All right. Will do.

Jeff Standridge: Thank you again. And thank you so much for listening. This has been another episode of the Innovation Junkies Podcast.

Jeff Amerine: This is Jeff Amerine. We want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying the Innovation Junkies Podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now. And please leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us. And don’t forget to share us on social media.

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