The problem with lean innovation

By: Shefik Bey
Date: October, 2015
File under: Articles

Go lean. Be agile. Pivot. Adapt. These are practices that smart organisations strive to initiate. But there are problems with innovating at such speed. Unless you get the basics right, you’re bound to lose yourself down a rabbit hole.

Great lean enterprise models

I recently read Lean Enterprise: How High Performing Organisations Innovate at Scale by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky & Barry O’Reilly. I got a lot out of the book and was pumped about applying lean techniques to an internal innovation project I have just started working on. The book provided valuable insight into how high performance organisations have managed to adopt lean principles effectively.

“Successful and innovative organisations survive and grow by continually disrupting their own existing business models in search of future opportunities, new markets and customers.”

Reviewing this book reminded me of what I learned from Traction: Get A Grip On Your Business by Gino Wickman. It says from a marketing perspective, there are several marketing hacks you can pursue. However, the most innovative approach is to focus on investing in just one or two at a time (and limiting the investment to a maximum of $1000 and a month of your time) before moving on and evaluating what works best.

Putting thoughts into action

As soon as I finished reading Lean Enterprise, I sat down with our U1 practice leads to impart some fresh thinking on the internal innovation research plan we’d discussed the week before (for our Loop11 service).

We had agreed on a deep-dive, generative research approach, which intended to explore the customer context, their needs and behavior before designing solutions with which to evaluate. I am an impatient man at the best of times, so the thought of jumping immediately into a series of lean experiments was incredibly appealing. But fortunately, internal voices of reason brought me back to earth.

Taking one step back

Throughout my career, I have always been a huge advocate of generative research. This is the type of research at the very beginning of the product cycle when we don’t even know what problem to solve for our customer. The purpose is to be able to formulate a problem to solve and be halfway sure that this is a relevant problem.1

At U1 Group, we are always working with clients keen to improve their customers’ experiences. And the good thing is that most clients understand the need to constantly adapt and tweak their processes to stay one step ahead.
But there is one huge problem: lean innovation relies on assumptions. Unfortunately, if those assumptions aren’t right, organisations waste precious time and resources trying to solve complications that don’t exist (and consequently overlooking the real root of their problems).

This is where generative research – what we call Discovery & Design – comes in. Really understanding the reason behind any iteration before making decisions is key.

Putting research first

Architects don’t make plans without doing their research first. There are building codes, context and competitors to consider first.2 Similarly, generative research needs to take place prior to kick-off for a project to be a real success.

We don’t disagree with lean enterprise models. But unless an organisation is absolutely sure their next move will address existing problems (rather than create new ones), we strongly recommend putting research first.

Formative research > Roadmap & strategy > Effective ongoing adaptation

Such research can be conducted via a range of methods such as observation, interviews, diary studies, workshops and focus groups. End deliverables include the development of personas and customer journey maps.

Formative research is a relatively straightforward but crucial activity that will pay back many dividends in the long term. You will save time, resources and effort – and be able to create that Minimum Loveable Product more quickly and easily. To ensure you’re using your time and resources most effectively, discuss your business needs by contacting our Discovery & Design team today.

As for my internal innovation project, I need to take a breath, pause, be patient and wait just that little bit longer before diving into solution mode (just what I have been telling clients to do for the last 15 years!).


1. Markus Andrezak: 4 Types of Research
2. Ling Lim: What UX Designers can Learn from Architects

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