Learning Through Reflection

“Sometimes, you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead.”

We just finished the 6th annual Lean LaunchPad class. This year we made a small but substantive addition to way we teach the class, adding a week for reflection. The results have made the class massively better.


For the last 6 years I’ve taught the Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford and Berkeley. To be honest I built the class out of frustration watching schools teach aspiring entrepreneurs that all they need to know is how to write a business plan or how to sit in an incubator building a product.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I believe that:

  1. a product is just a part of a startup, but understanding customers, channel, pricing, – the business model – is what turns a product into a business
  2. business plans are fine for large companies where there is an existing market, existing product and existing customers, but they are useless in a startup where most often none of these are known
  3. entrepreneurship is experiential and requires theory and a ton of practice.

Therefore, we developed the 8-week Lean LaunchPad class to teach students how to think about all the parts of building a business, not just the product.  We organized the class as:

  • Team-based
    • Students apply and learn as teams of 4. Eight teams per class
  • A “flipped” classroom
    • Students watch the lectures as homework via our MOOC
  • Every week we teach a new part of the theory of how to commercialize an insight or invention
    • using the business model canvas as the framework
  • Every week we teach the practice of Lean
    • by having the students get out of the classroom and talk to 10-15 customers a week and build a new Minimum Viable Product weekly
    • in order to validate/invalidate their business model hypotheses
    • The teaching team critiques their progress and suggests what they might do next
  • Every week the teams present their results
    • “Here’s what we thought, here’s what we did, here’s what we found, here’s what we are going to do next”

Class flowThe combination of the Business Model Canvas, Customer Development and Agile Engineering is an extremely efficient template for the students to follow. It drives a hyper-accelerated learning process which leads the students to a “information dense, evidence-based” set of conclusions. (Translation: they learn a lot more, in a shorter period of time, than in any other entrepreneurship course we’ve taught or seen.)

Demo Days Versus Lesson Learned Presentations
One thing we always kept in mind – we were teaching students a methodology and a set of skills for the rest of their lives – not running an incubator or accelerator. As a consequence, we couldn’t care less about a “Demo Day” at the end of the class. We don’t want our students focused on fund-raising, we want them to maximize their learning. Secondly, even for fund-raising, you couldn’t invent a less useful format to evaluate a startup’s potential then the Demo Days held by accelerators. Demo Days historically have been exactly what they sound like, “Show me how smart your team is at this instant in time.”  Everything depends on a demo, presentation and speaking style.

We designed our class to do something different. We wanted the teams to tell the story of their journey, sharing with us their “Lessons Learned from our Customers”. They needed to show what they learned and how they learned it after speaking to 100+customers, using the language of class: interview, iterations, pivots, restarts, experiments, minimal viable products, evidence. The focus of their presentations is on how they gathered evidence and how it impacted the understanding of their business models – while they were building their MVP.

Reflection Week
In the past, our teams would call on customers until the last week of the class and then present their Lessons Learned. The good news is that their presentations were dramatically better than those given at demo days – they showed us what they learned over 8 weeks which gave us a clear picture of the velocity and trajectory of the teams. The bad news is since their heads were down working on customer discovery until the very end, they had no time to reflect on the experience.

We realized that we had been so focused in packing content and work into the class, we failed to give the students time to step back and think about what they actually learned.

So this year we made a change. We turned the next to last week of the class into a reflection week.  Our goal—to have the students extract the insights and meaning from the work they had done in the previous seven weeks.

We asked each team to prepare a draft Lessons Learned presentation telling us about their journey and showing us their:

  • Initial hypotheses and Petal diagram
  • Quotes from customers that illustrated learnings and insights
  • Diagrams of key parts of the Canvas –customer flow, channel, get/keep/grow (before and after)
  • Pivot stories
  • Screen shots of the evolution of Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
  • Demo of final MVP

The teaching team reviewed the drafts and provided feedback to the teams and to the class as a whole. We discussed what general patterns and principles they extracted from all the customer interaction they had. On the last day of class, each team shared their Lessons Learned presentations, giving everyone in the class the benefit of what every team has learned.

We used this week to help teams reflect that they accomplished more than they first realized. For the teams who found that their ideas weren’t a scalable business, we let them conclude that while it was great to celebrate the wins, they could also embrace and celebrate their failures as low cost learning.

By the time the final week of the final Lessons Learned presentations rolled around, the students were noticeably more relaxed and happier than teams in past classes. It was clear they had a solid understanding of the magnitude of their journey and the size of their accomplishments – eight teams had spoken to nearly 900 customers, built 50 minimum viable products, and tested tons of hypotheses.

Here are four examples from our 2016 Stanford class

Pair Eyeware
Be sure to look at how they tested their hypotheses on slides 11 and 12, and the before and after value proposition canvases on slide 13 -17. A great competitive Petal diagram is on slide 22

Share and Tell
Great story and setup in slides 3-7. Understanding their market in week 6, slide 31.

Allocate
Notice how they learned about their customer archetypes on slides 12-14. After 80 interviews, a big pivot on slide 16.

Nova Credit
Look at the key hypotheses on slide 2 and their journey in the class on slide 5.

Lessons Learned

  • Dedicating a week for reflections expands what everyone learns
  • Students extract the insights and meaning from the work they did
  • See all the presentations here

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing Steve, great, practical post. In particular “reflection week” is a powerful idea, and a helpful reminder that to make the most of any teaching, we need space for processing and consolidation.

    Any hypotheses on what would happen if there were a reflection period in the middle of the course?

    I wonder if there’d be a temporary drop in momentum, but if it’d be offset by more targeted interviews post-reflection and a more thorough understanding of the process.

    Like

    • Justin,
      I think a time for reflection can be anywhere. However,… you can only reflect on the work you’ve done. So a reflection in the middle of the class can only have them learn about what’s past, not what’s coming.

      steve

      Like

  2. As always an excellent and informative post Steve. I really like the idea of the reflection week and the focus more on a group lessons learned format as opposed to a build/demo.

    I’ve struggled sometimes in the past to convince students of the benefits of following the ‘process’ and learning lessons while trying to temper their urge to ‘build’.

    Your new learning format certainly provides the potential to gather data for future groups – I might try a rollout of this format and get back in touch with the results. Also really enjoyed your post on the mission based business model.

    Like

  3. Thanks Steve for “Reflextion Theorem”. In real world we do reflect back but we fail to understand that failure was a good lesson learned. We tend to regret why we made that mistake instead of celebrating what we learned from that mistake.

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  4. Congrats Steven. When is the next Lean LaunchPad?

    Like

  5. I like the addition of the look-back week. Do you still gather the students together to form teams before the first class meets? Unless I missed it, you did not post an updated syllabus for either E245 or UCB.
    Could you provide a link to one of the syllabi? Best, Mitch

    Like

  6. Hello Steve,

    Enjoy reading these posts to ask if you have a classroom course.

    How can I learn to do a course on customer development process?

    I live in Brazil and I want to learn about this subject.

    Thank you!

    Like

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