Lean start-up methodology, a tool used by many successful entrepreneurs, has been used to describe the Trump Administration’s approach to governing.
While “failing fast and breaking things” is a phrase uttered by many entrepreneurs using the lean start-up approach, I am just not sanguine about its application to government leadership.
Lean start-up methodology starts with a key insight: that large and small companies are very different from each other. A small business is not a mini version of a large company. In fact, a fledgling company is not even a business at all; it is a small team with only one activity: discovering the fit between a product and potential customers. Start-up folks call this activity “customer discovery.”
During the customer discovery period, expenses are kept low and founders get out and talk with potential customers. Armed with at most an inexpensively built prototype, entrepreneurs hit the pavement even before the commercial product is completed. The goal is to first find out whether anyone will want the product before incurring significant expense or wasting years on a fruitless quest.
Frankly, I wish more entrepreneurs applied lean start-up tools. As an investor, I have met countless innovators who have built a product or service offering through considerable sacrifice and expense, without first determining whether a market for the product actually exists. Technology is surprisingly fungible, but the ability to satisfy a customer is rare.
There is no doubt that small, engaged teams encouraged to experiment are more likely to find a good product/market fit. This can be just as true in politics and government. I have seen customer discovery principles applied to effecting change within government and finding agile solutions to national security challenges.
However, in both business and in governing, there is a significant limitation to the agility and rapid experimentation at the core of the lean start-up process: it doesn’t enlighten a business leader or a government official on how to achieve consistency.
In business, the constant churn of experimentation and revision must evolve into building an organization that can scale and grow revenue through coordinated actions by larger groups who create and execute a business strategy for sustainable excellence. A consistent and predictable approach to sales, hiring, compensation and branding is a must. A constant feedback loop between customers and management is pivotal, so that as customer demand grows, the organization can obtain resources to satisfy its customers.
For governing, the same is also true.
In foreign policy, our allies examine our leaders’ statements and look for consistency in viewpoint. We also see it in the coordination necessary to provide services and engage in national security.
In business and in government, we rightly admire people willing to take the risk of trying something new, and we should encourage the continued use of customer discovery and rapid experimentation as tools to understand how our actions affect those we serve. However, we should not confuse “busyness” or chaos for progress, and breaking things for strategy.
The mistake many make when they apply the principles of experimentation and customer discovery is to forget that it is not the process that ultimately matters, it is the outcome.
Winning in business and in government ultimately requires the same skills: focus, strength and consistency. Mastering customer discovery is not the same as scaling a business. Winning an election through agility and creativity is not the same as governing.
The quicker we encourage the application of the lean start-up methodology to improve delivery of service to citizens, the better. The quicker our presidential leadership proves that deliberate, thoughtful consistency is being applied to the act of governance, the better many Americans will sleep.
This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.