Ignoring Reality Whilst Using Lean Startup: Four Scenes You Will Recognize

Fear, Uncertainty, Attachment and Mindfulness

(notes partly inspired by a talk by Dan Millstein at the Lean Startup Conference 2014, and thoughts on mindfulness and the Lean Startup).

It is in our nature to be fearful of uncertainty and loss (of status, money, plans). It is in our nature to be attached to things we have created, even if they are only ideas and prototypes.

The Lean Startup provides us with techniques to test our assumptions against reality at an early stage, when our attachment to them is relatively young and before we have invested time, energy and money into realizing them.

Since we are so fearful of loss, the longer we allow an idea to develop without being challenged, the more difficult it becomes to face up to testing them — the potential loss has grown massively with the investments we have made.

This is the central failing of countless doomed projects: having proceeded without testing the core assumptions, there is now too much invested to take the risk of facing reality in the present. If we look, it might all be lost! So there is only work, moving forward to ultimate failure.

Confronting reality is much more of an emotional challenge than a rational one. We hate loss, and we hate uncertainty, and our reactions to fear come from our emotional mind, not our rational one. Our emotions overwhelm our ability think clearly.

The practice of mindfulness is a tool which lets us detach, even a little, from our fears. It allows us to see fear and uncertainty without becoming overwhelmed by them. It gives our rational mind space to work.

These are some places where a practice of mindfulness may help you and your team, work with reality to build something that fits, that works, that meshes with the world as it is.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Frank Herbert, Dune. (yeah, I know. but it’s helped me over the years).


1. Listening to a potential customer describe their “pain points”

As the customer describes their “pain points”, you realize that the product approach you had in mind doesn’t match their problems at all.

You’re uncomfortable because:

  • the work you have done coming up with your product assumptions is “wasted”
  • you will have to do more work to come up with a different assumption set
  • you are fearful that you may not be able to come up with any new ideas
  • you really liked the ideas you had and now you have to rework or discard them
  • the project just became more uncertain. you were hoping it would become more certain

You try and avoid reality by thinking things like:

  • this is not a representative custome
  • the customer is not telling me what they really do/thin
  • when they fully see what we are going to build, they will change their mind

Face reality. Listen to the customer.


2. The results of an experiment come back.

Your new feature isn’t accepted at the rate you were hoping. Your signup rate is below the model you predicted.

You’re uncomfortable because:

  • the work you’ve done in spec’ing the feature so far (hopefully you haven’t actually built it) will be “wasted”
  • you were attached to the feature: it’s clever, innovative, elegant
  • the team really worked their butts off to build the prototype. They will be disappointed.
  • the release schedule assumes this feature. Reworking it may cause a slip. That might be embarrassing
  • you told your boss/your board/your investors/your mentor that this feature is a really good idea and you had high hopes for it

You try and avoid reality by thinking things like:

  • even though the numbers are less that we set as the lower bound, they’re still kinda OK
  • the feature is still a good idea, and there’s loads of ways we can improve the results as we go along
  • the team didn’t execute the experiment correctly (the sample was wrong, the questions weren’t the right ones)
  • the experiment didn’t really represent the feature (the colors were wrong, the fonts weren’t the right ones, it ran slower than the final version will)

You’re feeling:

  • fear of loss: you liked that feature, and you’ll have to drop or change it
  • fear of failure: you set expectations that the feature would be a step towards success
  • embarrassment: again, expectations!
  • shame: you let the team down

We really, really dislike and fear failure and loss (approximately twice as much as we anticipate gains) We will bend our thoughts significantly to avoid feeling it. Likewise embarrassment.

Take the short-term loss over the long-term (likely) loss of project failure.


3. The team is building prototypes and testing them.

Time is ticking by and no code is being written.

You are uncomfortable because:

  • the team is still (still!) testing hypotheses, not building something! They should be building something!
  • you’re not showing any “progress” to your boss, investors, partners
  • you’re not really sure when this process will end — nobody seems to know

You try and avoid reality by thinking things like:

  • we should just start building something. anything. get it in front of somebody.
  • the team doesn’t understand the urgency of the real world! they are just spinning their wheels!!
  • the team doesn’t get the vision. if they did, they wouldn’t be testing everything — we’d be charging forward!
  • the competition (and everybody mentioned in TechCrunch) is moving really fast. we’re stuck doing all this testing!

You’re feeling:

  • fear: you’re going to run out of money, or miss the deadline(s) you have communicated in the organization.
  • personal fear: your career will take a dent. Your stock options will plummet in value
  • lack of control: a “validated concept” is not a thing, like working code. you can’t show anything of value.
  • fear: maybe the core ideas won’t work! maybe the whole thing will fall apart!

Fear and uncertainty go together. Careful experimentation is a way of reducing uncertainty, not causing it. Starting to “just write code” is, counter-intuitively, a way of increasing uncertainty.


4. You review a competitors product with a potential customer.

Their point of view is that the competitive product works just fine.

You are uncomfortable because:

  • your assumption was that the competitive product had some weaknesses you were going to exploit

You try and avoid reality by thinking things like:

  • the customer doesn’t understand how great your product is going to be
  • the customer doesn’t understand their own business fully
  • the customer isn’t using the competitive product robustly anyway
  • your product will end-around the competition over time — you can develop faster.

You’re feeling:

  • fear: your going-in assumption may be incorrect. your plan is not on solid ground
  • loss of status: you really thought you were going to dominate those guys. now, maybe not.
  • potential embarrassment: you’ve told your team, investors, partners that the competition is weak, now it turns out maybe it’s not

Loss of status is in your head. You didn’t have a product in the first place — you had an idea!

Who’s winning and who’s losing comes and goes. What’s important is that you build something great that people want.

Listen to the customer. What else are they saying? What can you build?

As we notice our thoughts in meditation, we discover that they are not in our control- we swim in an uninvited constant stream of memories, plans, expectations, judgments, regrets.

Jack Kornfield

Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached.

Simone Weil


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