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.