Entrepreneurs Need a Community of Practice Not a Movement

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, Community of Practice, skmurphy

Patrick Houston observes the following in “Lean Startup Concept No Silver Bullet

[...] I’ve read the book. I’ve recommended some its practices. I’ve embraced some too as my own startup conceives, develops, and consults to technology-fueled media startups. I concur with the precept at the heart of the lean approach: Even the most brilliant and experienced people don’t know enough to outwit emerging, rapidly changing, and increasingly complex markets, especially when it comes to products and business models without precedent.

According to the “lean” way of life, the only prudent way to determine what the market wants is to deploy the scientific method, the very same one we learned in grade school: State an hypothesis and then do an experiment to prove or disprove it.

This inherently more humble approach to business represents a refreshing contrast to the entrepreneurial hubris that struts its stuff down the streets of Palo Alto where people live by the self-assured motto, “Go big or go home.” If only for that reason, I’m attracted to its tenets.

But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to swallow it whole. The main reason: The “lean” philosophy is just that. It’s not just a tactic or strategy. To listen to its champions, it’s an ideology. I started wincing on Page 14 of the book when Ries called the Lean Startup idea “a global movement.” A movement? Really? Like civil rights? Environmentalism? The Arab Spring?

To me, when someone touts a practice as a movement that’s the telltale sign of fad, one that over-promises like so many predecessor methodologies that came and went because we failed to subject them stringently enough to critical thinking.

Eric Ries’ Startup Lessons Learned blog and the two Startup Lessons Learned conferences in 2010 and 2011 sparked a number of useful additions to established pragmatic approaches for new product development and introduction. He has encouraged entrepreneurs to focus on learning and to be curious about their customers’ needs and constraints. This has been is a healthy antidote to much that was written about how to court professional investors as the critical rite of passage for an entrepreneur to master.

But I don’t consider myself a disciple or part of a movement. I consider myself a practitioner. I am a huge fan of Saras Sarasvathy, Clayton Christensen, Peter Drucker, Gary Klein, and Gerald Weinberg. I found Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm very useful and felt that the first three chapters of Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank offered a useful perspective, but was similar in many ways to Mark Leslie’s “Sales Learning Curve” and much of the key discussion in Innovator’s Solution by Christensen.

I continue to take an active part in the discussions on the Lean Startup Circle because I like the commitment to learning that the community has.  I think entrepreneurship represents a way of looking at the world, and in particular what Saras Sarasvathy calls effectual logic. Working from means to ends and then using those ends as new means to new ends.

In Sarasvathy & Venkataraman’s 2011 article  “Entrepreneurship as Method: Open Questions for an Entrepreneurial Future” in  Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 35(1), 113-135 they conclude:

Until now, for the most part, we have focused on entrepreneurship as a phenomenon and we have tried to understand how to create the conditions for good entrepreneurial performance whether at the firm level or at the societal level. That is akin to asking “What explains the discovery of penicillin or plate tectonics?” or trying to understand the role of government funding in the nature and magnitude of scientific output. To specify the method of science or of entrepreneurship, however, we have to roll up our sleeves and actually observe experienced entrepreneurs in action, read their diaries, examine their documents and sit in on negotiations—as did the scholarly and humanistic literati of Bacon’s time. And as we extract and codify the “real helps” of entrepreneurial thought and action, we need to figure out ways to embody them in particular techniques and mechanisms that we refine in the laboratory and the classroom with a view to carefully determining the logical relationships both between these mechanisms and how they connect to the unleashing of human potential. In short, we have an exciting time of hard work ahead of us.

I think we are closer to the 1% (or at most the 10%) level of understanding entrepreneurship and that it’s very short sighted to view it as a settled body of knowledge or a set of solved problems we can turn into checklists or video recorded lectures. It’s not algebra.

I certainly offer checklists and videos on this website that I hope you will find helpful but I look at them as my contribution to a community of practice devoted to entrepreneurship.

I find it hard to predict the evolution of lean / customer development. Looking back to 2003 when the first edition of “Four Steps” with the Tokyo subway map came out a lot has changed and yet the fundamental challenges the first few chapters address remain unchanged. “Get out of the building” is a technique for avoiding the prison of your own perceptions as an entrepreneur. The earlyvangelist checklist is still a reliable guide to spotting organizational change agents.

I saw a comment by Bill Seitz on Ash Maurya’s blog post about his new Spark59 Manifesto that gave me pause:

[...] I get uncomfortable with all the leading lights of the Lean movement becoming gold-prospecting-tool-sellers instead of people talking about lean from the content of mining for gold themselves… (Just as Internet Marketers give me the heebie-jeebies with 90% of the big success stories being people in….Internet Marketing.)

I find it hard to predict what books will be the most relevant to entrepreneurs in 2020. I think many of Peter Drucker’s books will still have relevant insights, as well as Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” and “Innovator’s DNA”, Sarasvathy’s “Effectual Entrepreneurship” and Gerald Weinberg’s “Secrets of Consulting.” But I find it hard to assess the long term impact of lean models for entrepreneurship.


Update July 1: I realized that I didn’t include a background link for Bill Seitz (@BillSeitz). He is a thoughtful individual with an interesting personal wiki at http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki.

Steve Blank originally published the first version of “Four Steps to the Epiphany” using Cafe Press in 2003 with a picture of the Tokyo subway map on its cover. The revised version has a 2005 copyright and Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” on the cover.

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