Fat vs. Lean Thinking - Keys to Innovation

I was introduced to Venkatesh Rao and his RibbonFarm blog sometime ago.  If you haven't read anything from it you really should.  One of his blog posts entitled "Fat Thinking and Economies of Variety" really got me thinking.  There has been so much hype and institutionalization around the Lean movement it was refreshing to read something contrary to lean.  I wanted to leverage a few of the notions from Venkatesh's post and riff on them myself for a little while.

Join me for this ride?

So many people are advocates of the Lean Movement.  In the circles where I run it is typically known as the Lean Startup Movement.  What does that look like?

Tenants of Lean (Incrementally better)

  • Identify your market & strategy
  • Design and ideate
  • Create a MVP (minimum viable product)
  • Get feedback from the market
  • Adjust/Pivot your strategy and designs
  • Get feedback from the market
  • Adjust (incrementally better)
  • Get feedback from the market
  • Adjust (incrementally better)
  • Deliver (which is also feedback, the market votes with it's dollars)
  • Adjust (incrementally better)
  • Succeed at growth or die quickly

Using lean, why is speed so important?  Well in the startup world you typically have both limited time and limited resources to become successful.  Limited time; since your brilliant ideas today will be eclipsed by someone else's it's important to act now.  This is known as 'first mover advantage'.  Limited resources; you typically don't have the cash to operate very long before the need for paying customers or the need to find investors in your business. Running lean can be a great strategy for many startups and companies.  Why not all?  What I will posit is this:  the lean thinking approach emphasizes speed which prevents the necessary research and deep understanding of a problem required to generate truly revolutionary ideas. Now don't get me wrong, lean is a powerful approach that is necessary, but it may be preventing truly revolutionary solutions from being considered.

So what is the opposite of lean thinking?  Fat thinking is an approach that emphasizes deep understanding rather than speed. The method looks for problems and opportunities where none maybe initially apparent. 

Fat Thinking (Leap forward)

  • Consider the problem
  • Digest what is known (market/industry research)
  • Immerse in the problem (active participatory research)
  • Synthesize (look for patterns of behaviour)
  • Discover meaning (understand the patterns of behaviour)
  • Examine the impossible (ignore assumptions)
  • Explore the optional (look at fringe solutions)
  • Become the market (live the problem so that you can effectively evaluate solutions)
  • Design and ideate (until you are satisfied)
  • Deliver (which is also feedback, the market votes with it's dollars)

While lean thinking is about minimizing the investment of scarce resources (time, money) in order to maximize the return Fat thinking is about optimizing learning and discards the notion that time and money are scarce resources.  Lean thinking is about putting all your eggs into the right basket and running fast. Fat thinking is about many eggs in many baskets to create learning opportunities through variety.

When would you use Fat thinking? Anytime there is an opportunity for oversized rewards for the innovator who comes up with the 'right' solution.  This is a problem of scoping not scaling. Failing to learn enough about the market will not enable the innovation necessary to succeed. Problems where only a variety of options help to determine product-market fit. Problems where ignoring what is known about the industry can also help to lead to the solution.

An example Henry Fords V8 motor for the ages. http://autoweek.com/article/car-news/ford-v8-henry-fords-final-triumph

An example the Aeron Chair from Herman Miller https://www.fastcodesign.com/1671789/the-untold-history-of-how-the-aeron-chair-came-to-be

I'd love to hear your examples of Fat Thinking in action.




Design in your Start-up

While there are many hurdles a young company needs to overcome to be successful, design need not be one of them. 

 Assemble the right team

So many times startups have asked me about hiring UX designers. Often founders think that by hiring a UX designer all their design challenges will go away. Some founders think they can unload all design issues on a UX designer, freeing the founders up to do other things. This is both short-sighted and naive thinking.  While I encourage the hiring of UX staff, it is impossible for one person to make all the design related decisions.  Why is that?  Delivering a product to market is a team effort and most decisions are interdependent. For example business strategy decisions will impact which features are packaged in the first release of the product, and thus the design. So design is tightly coupled with the business strategy, marketing and development efforts. The right team is one that recognizes the interdependence of decisions and are able to work together to ensure the right strategy, marrying production vision with immediate execution.  To hire a designer, consider adding a person with breadth of skills who can contribute to the product strategy rather than providing only one skill like graphic design.

Learn design thinking

The right team armed with the right knowledge will move mountains.  By learning design thinking your startup core team will be able to clearly define problems, explore solutions, develop concepts and recognize ways to evaluate ideas quickly. These are the essential skills needed to evaluate your business strategy and also to recognize when to pivot to a new strategy.  Design thinking is more about strategic thinking than it is about design.  Google Ventures has an in-house team of expert designers to who have honed a technique called the 'Design Sprint'.  At Google Ventures these experts coach and facilitate teams through learning design thinking.  If you aren't familiar with design thinking seek help through books, mentoring or training

Learn to listen and observe

Listening at the right moments can be crucial for your business.  Learn how to listen to and observe sales prospects to get a sense of what they really think of your product or concept. Driven entrepreneurs can switch into 'sales mode' and push hard for an early sale not comprehending that a crucial learning opportunity may have been wasted. Feedback is hard to get from customers, as a founder and decision maker you are in the best position to listen, observe, assimilate, and act on early feedback. It is crucial that founders learn the basics of effective customer research. When in a situation where a prospect has some early feedback, the best question you can ask is 'why'.  

  • Why do you feel that way?
  • Why do you expect that feature?
  • Why would you need...?

Asking why shows you are interested, but more importantly allows you to dig for meaning.  Learning to listen and observe is hard and again seek help through books, mentoring or training.

 User and Task Analysis for Interface Design - Hacko & Reddish

While design is not the only critical skill needed for your start-ups success, there is no reason design should diminish your chances. Start-up incubators and accelerator programs typically have access to the design expertise your startup needs. Find the help you need your success may depend on it.