Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy

When you’re up to your neck in alligators, don’t forget the goal was to drain the swamp.

I love teaching because I learn something new every class.

This time it was, “Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy.”

The latest “aha” moment for me when I was at Columbia University teaching an intensive 5-day version of the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class.  The goal of the class is to expose students to the basics of the Lean MethodologyBusiness Model Design, Customer Development and Agile Engineering.

In this short version of the class, students (in teams of four) spend half their day out of the classroom testing their hypotheses by talking to customers and building minimum viable products.  The teams come back into the class and present what they found, and then they get out and talk to more customers.  Repeat for 5 days.  All teams talk to at least 50 customers/ partners/ stakeholders, and some manage to reach more than 100.

One of the teams wanted to create a new woman’s clothing brand. The good news is that they were passionate, smart and committed.  The not so good news is that other than having been customers, none of them had ever been in the fashion business. But hey, no problem.  They had the Lean Startup model to follow. They could figure it out by simply talking to customers and stores that carry unique fashion brands.  How hard can this be?!

2_8_maraBy the second day the team appeared to be making lots of progress –  they had talked to many women about their clothing line, and had marched up and down NY stores talking to buyers in clothing boutiques.  They built detailed value proposition canvases for each customer segment (young urban professional woman, students, etc.) –  trying to match customer pains, gains and jobs to be done with their value proposition (their new clothing line.) They were busily testing their hypotheses about customer segments and value proposition, seeing if they could find product/market fit.

In listening to them it dawned on me that I had fallen victim to teaching process rather than helping the teams gain insight. I asked them to remind the class what business they were in.  “We’re creating a clothing fashion brand,” was the reply.  I asked, “And how much fashion brand expertise do you have as a team?” “None, we’re using customer discovery to quickly acquire it.”  On the surface, it sounded like a good answer.

But then I asked, “Has anyone on your team asked if any of your 120 classmates are in the apparel/fashion business?”  After a moment of reflection they did just that, and eight of their classmates raised their hands. I asked, “Do you think you might want to do customer discovery first on the domain experts in your own class?”  A small lightbulb appeared over their heads.

A day later, after interviewing their classmates, the team discovered that when creating a woman’s clothing brand, the clothing itself has less to do with success than the brand does. And the one critical element in creating a brand is getting written about by a small group (less than 10) of “brand influencers” (reviewers, editors, etc.) in fashion magazines and blogs.

fashion-brandWhoah… the big insight was that how you initially “get” these key influencers – not customers or stores – is the critical part of creating a clothing fashion brand. This meant understanding these influencers was more important than anything else on the business model canvas. The team immediately added brand influencers to their business model canvas, created a separate value proposition canvas for them and started setting up customer discovery interviews.
The lessons?

  • This team was entering an existing market. (The team had already drawn the Petal Diagram mapping the competitive landscape.)petal-and-canvas
  • In an existing market there is a track record for how new entrants create a brand, get traction and scale. Many of the key insights about the business model and value proposition canvases are already known.
  • In an existing market, going through customer discovery (talking to customers, buyers, distribution channel, etc.) without first asking, “Are there any insights that can be gained by understanding the incumbent strategies, can be a trap for the unwary.”

Ironically, when I was entrepreneur I knew and practiced this. When I started a new venture in existing markets I would spend part of my initial customer discovery attending conferences, reading analysts’ reports and talking to domain experts to understand current market entry strategies. (None of this obligated me to follow the path of other companies. At times I took this information and created a different strategy to disrupt the incumbents.) But as an educator I was getting trapped in teaching the process not the strategy.

The fashion brand team’s experience was a great wake-up call.

From now on my first question to startups in an existing market is: “Tell me the critical success factors of the existing incumbents.”

Lessons Learned

  • In an existing market, draw a Petal Diagram with adjacent companies
  • Focus part of your initial customer discovery on learning competitive insights.
  • Describe how those companies entered the market. What was critical?


14 Responses

  1. Thanks for the sharing!

  2. Dear Steve,

    Why not use the value curve model?


  3. Thanks Steve – this is so timely (in many ways). I am teaching Lean Startup with Customer Development in an “Entrepreneurial Practices and Innovation” class for Fashion Business department at South Metropolitan TAFE in Perth, Australia. I am sure there is at least one student (besides me, I’m always a student, even as the teacher) who will benefit a lot from this particular post.

  4. “Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy.” Thanks for that. Too often people are focused on the process or the methodology, instead of focusing on the results they want to achieve. Think about the discussions around “agile” at present.

  5. If they watched the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” it was about how one magazine editor could make or break a brand, clothing, line, etc.

  6. This was a great reminder and (even more importantly) very timely for me and a client who I am helping evaluate their current value proposition and product competitiveness.

  7. Dear professor Blank, so glad that you posted this article. In last year or so in my teaching I am trying to approach problem-solution (and product-market) fit from the critical perspective. Some underlying assumptions are that if we focus only on the problem-solution only we reduce uncertainty in the process and actually we try to operate in the “closed system”. So actually spending some resources that will result in the serendipity could result in much better product/service at the end with much less resources spent on technology development. Would like to share case study if somebody is interested.

  8. Thanks Steve for writing this article. Love the “Lessons Learned”.

  9. In the end, it is about amassing enough domain specific know-how to enable creative intuition

    All the processes, recipes and methods dont change that

  10. Steve, your title misses a great opportunity. Rather than “Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy”, it should be “Make sure your process includes finding the best strategy”.

    What this article really says is that pursuing a process that does not discover your best strategy, or is not based on great strategy when you already have one, is a bad idea.

    Process and strategy are not opponents. Great businesses have great strategies and great processes, and each embeds the other.

  11. Sometimes we forget the obvious… The grey hair doesn’t make us wise. It’s asking the right questions of the right people to gain a winning insight. Thanks for the timely reminder.

  12. Love the Petal Diagram, didn’t know that’s what it was called though! Venn Diagrams work fairly well for competitive landscape analysis.

    Thanks for sharing.

    P.S. Business model canvases are great exercises for startups.

  13. I love the business model canvas. So many companies jump to writing a business plan without even having a well-tested business model first.

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