The Ideation Switch

Imagine the following situation: You are in the office working on the next release of your software product. Suddenly your co-founder storms in and starts talking about the excellent new idea he just had.

You end up in a long discussion about the future of the company, only to resume work on the old release. You feel exhausted, not motivated and are happy when you finally leave the office.

That story is a symptom of a larger problem – we question what we are doing, whilst we are doing it. In my own experience this has lead to a lot of time wasted, motivation issues and the company running out of money because we kept the same strategy over years (even though we knew better).

Our inability to decide on executing one specific strategy resulted in procrastination, doing irrelevant work, or just having endless brainstorming meetings without ever taking action. I’ve come to believe, that in order to achieve flow in startup and get the business going, you need to keep the time your team spends on alternative directions to a minimum.

That means, either focus on one direction and execute, or discuss alternatives and make a decision as fast as possible. This difference is best described as The Ideation Switch – making a conscious decision between Ideation and Execution:

Screen shot 2013-01-18 at 16.21.03

Ideation is fundamentally different from Execution – we should choose our goals and work processes accordingly.

Ideation is about finding (any) interesting signals in chaos, close to customers and the market. During this time you’d run customer interviews, usability tests, investigate different business models and even look at what the competition is doing.

During Execution you have a clear goal of what you want to achieve – and work obsessively towards it, ideally without much distraction. In the Lean Startup sense, this is where Build-Measure-Learn happens, and where you test your hypothesis and run experiments.

You have assumptions both during Ideation and Execution, but they are tested quite loosely and rapidly in Ideation (a couple of interviews can invalidate a strategy) versus being tested thorough in Execution, based on customer data or previous experience.

Now, the biggest risk we have as a startup, is if we spend too much time on either of these, without giving room to the other.

When to Execute & When to Ideate

If we spend too much time Ideating, we end up in analysis paralysis, never focusing on one idea and one strategy to actually do it.

If we spend too much time Executing, we end up in a local maxima, with modest growth and not much potential for actual new innovation. We also run at risk of building something no customer really wants – them saying “nice product”, but not enough actually engaging and using it.

We therefore need to reduce scope by putting both Ideation and Execution into a timebox. This could mean we spend 2 weeks on Ideation through customer interviews, then 3 weeks on Execution and actually building an MVP.

Examples of this: Product Design Sprint @ Google Ventures,, etc

How to Structure Ideation

Ideation consists of two parts: Collecting new data from actual customers by “getting out of the building”, and then analysing that data to gain insights and zoom into one direction to pursue. For collecting new data you intentionally want to open your worldview to diverging, new perspectives – something that is easiest in the beginning, but gets much harder for established businesses.

You can structure Ideation intro three main stages:


  • Opening: Broaden your perspective & worldview and allow diverging perspectives from different team members
  • Explore: Understand both your team’s understanding of the customer, and the actual customer’s needs
  • Close: Converge on a specific insight and agree what to focus on for your next Execution phase

You might recognise these from the book Gamestorming, or the similarities with the Design Thinking process.

Tools & Techniques for Ideation

  • Customer Interviews: Setup a 30 minute interview session with an actual customer and determine what their job-to-be-done is (look for frustration with status quo & other strong reactions), and whether they are actively looking for a better solution
  • Business Modelling: Model the essential aspects of your business on the Business Model Canvas, and explore alternatives by just leaving one of the post-its on the canvas. Use with a timer (e.g. 15min) and quick iterations.
  • Card Sorting: Have your users sort index cards (e.g. navigation items of your website, feature ideas, etc) into categories, this helps you understand in which groups/patterns they think
  • Personas: Summary of who your user is and what their goals are.
  • Design Studio: Collaboration tool to evaluate ideas and prototypes as a group,  see also the TLC Labs blog posts.
  • Many others: Rapid Prototyping, KJ technique, Mental Models, Customer Journey Mapsempathy maps, behavioural variables & many more in the 500startups Lean UX Bootcamp slides

If you’d like to learn in more detail how design techniques can be applied to startups, take a look at this Case Study by Mike Krieger from Instagram:

– Mike Krieger @ Warmgun Conference 2012, Talk starts at 22:00

Stop Wasting Your Time

I’ve seen too many companies that still had 6+ months runway burst up in flames because they didn’t actually try any of the options at their disposal, but rather ended up in endless brainstorming meetings, and working on things they didn’t believe in anymore.

This explicit separation and the tools introduced above have helped me avoid that state and move towards a working business faster. To reiterate, do not Ideate and Execute at the same time, it only leads to indecision and procrastination.

Get started today by:

  • Understand what you are trying to do: If you are doing customer development right now, focus on just that, and do it in the next 2 weeks instead of 2 months
  • Don’t share new exciting ideas 24/7 with the team: We love to do it, but this can be confusing for the team members, especially when you have misunderstanding between business/marketing and tech
  • Set a specific time for Ideation: Start with timeboxing your teams divergent thoughts into a 2-3 hour meeting, expand this over time into 1-2 days and include actual customers into the process
  • Be conscious of why you are (un)productive: If we put the wrong constraints & goals into place we’ll just keep procrastinating. Try to reflect on your own productivity and understand the root cause, don’t try to beat it with sheer willpower.

I’d love to hear about your experience – share your thoughts & comments on Twitter.

Deconstructing Lean Startup: Four Perspectives

When new entrepreneurs are introduced to Lean Startup I can often sense their confusion: What is Lean Startup? Structured approach? Set of principles? Cargo cult?

It sure is a good marketing buzzword. And from reading the book its quite difficult to actually take action inside your startup.

The actionable tools start appearing once you go into the different communities.

In recent months I’ve spent considerable time deconstructing understandings and taking a long list of learnings and tools with me. Here’s a short glimpse, which hopefully gives you incentive to explore on your own.

Lean Startup Machine: Get Out of The Building

Most important principle of all: Get out of the building and learn from a customer. Don’t sit inside and come up with the perfect approach.

Lean Startup Machine has perfected this – over a weekend they push over 50 people out of the building and interact with customers on the street, in clubs and over the phone. The process is messy and imperfect, but people always come back having made their first validated learning from customers.

What I’ve learned from them: Getting out of your comfort zone (= your learning bias) is more important than strictly following methodology.

Discussing Customer Learnings at LSM London

UX & Designers: Visual Thinking & User Research Methods

When you talk with customers don’t forget the insights of the UX and design community. They’ve spent decades perfecting user research, before it was glorified. Learn from them how to run customer interviews, how to see patterns in your customers, and how to integrate learnings into your team.

Especially when integrating customer learnings, I can highly recommend grabbing a copy of Dave Gray’s Gamestorming. It contains an wealth of information on visual tools that enable you to make better decisions as a team – instead of endless discussions and talking.

What I’ve learned from them: How (and when) to run customer interviews and other user research. Team work. Always asking “What are we trying to learn?”.

Spark59: Timeboxed Experiments

When we go out of the building we can practice a lot of learning – but if we treat it as a checkbox “☑ Customer Development” we will end up without actionable results.

The Build-Measure-Learn loop tries to codify that, but I’ve found it challenging to actually implement this concept in practice. Especially the sometimes forgotten step 0: Defining your experiment.

I recently joined Ash Maurya at Spark59, exploring different Kan-ban boards and A3 reports for defining experiments.

What I’ve learned: The importance of timeboxing experiments – and coming up with hypothesis before you run the experiment.

Ash in front of the Validated Learning Board

Y Combinator: Focus on Your Customers (and ignore investors)

Paul Graham, the mastermind behind Y Combinator (YC), would not publicly endorse Lean Startup – but I still took one key message away for all entrepreneurs who try to be rigorous and structured.

Teams going through YC get one really important push: One team member focuses on product (= build), one team member focuses on users (= get ouf of the building).

Until demo day there is no time wasted on investors – all is spent on trying to come up with something people want.

What I’ve learned from them: It’s important to keep fundraising out of the entrepreneur’s mind when starting out. Fundraising pushes us towards our comfort zones and vanity metrics – we start believing in our own reality distortion field.

Fred & Russell participating in YC S12

The Movement

Some people feel that Lean Startup is a cargo cult that pushes Eric Ries’ personality. If you’ve ever seen Eric talk, or talked with him personally, you’ll see though that thats really not the point – and that he does all he can to push other leaders in the community around the shared goal of improving the odds of entrepreneurship.

“Our success should be judged by the leaders we develop in the communities – not the leaders we already have.”
– Eric Ries

Lean Startup is a space that enables us to collaborate and think up new approaches – no one ever said its the road to success, but it should make us think and reflect on what we’re actually trying to do, and what methods we use to get there.

Salim Virani summarized this best in my opinion, describing the Leancamp open space as a “15-dimensional Venn diagram”. Leancamp brings together entrepreneurs, researchers and coaches alike, with a focus on a high-bandwidth exchange of knowledge, ideas and experiences.

Leancamp Dublin

Lets inspire many more entrepreneurs to take a closer look and participate in the community – and not lead them to think Lean Startup is a cookie cutter approach to success.

Join a Leancamp, attend a Meetup and above anything else: Share your own thoughts with others, we’re all here to learn and continuously improve.

Case Study: Behind Instagram’s Growth

"The morning of Instagram's launch." - Rod Begbie

All the media are abuzz with the news of Facebook acquiring Instagram for $1 billion. Lets dive into what they actually did:

Zoom-in pivot:
Instagram was initially “Burbn”, a check-in app where you could also add photos. They launched after 8 months of private beta, and saw little engagement from customers – apart from photo sharing, which was used actively. At some point they actually sat down and built a prototype of “just photos” – but discarded that again without launching it.

Few weeks later, on a vacation, Kevin Systrom saw someone use a photo app with filters (Hipstamatic was already popular) and wondered why none of these apps had social functionality. And all the existing social photo apps made ugly photos. From that he and Mike Krieger built a simplistic social photo app with just one excellent filter: Instagram.

“If I could give any advice: Stay away from this private beta stuff. Put it out there, find the people that are vocal about it, put it in their hands and listen to what they’re excited about.”
Foundation 16: Kevin Systrom

They focused on one “must have” use case:
Sharing beautiful photos with your friends.

They split it up into three problems to be solved:

  1. Making Photos Beautiful
    (based on their observation of filter apps)
  2. Allowing You To Share Them on Multiple Networks
    (engineering for viral growth)
  3. Making Uploads Go Really Quickly
    (making the user experience even better)

“We focused on three – we weren’t trying to reinvent the world of photography. We focused on these three humble problems. And thats what turned Instagram from yet another network tackling photos, into a network people used.”
Foundation 16: Kevin Systrom

Build-Measure-Learn & Cohort Analysis:
Instagram kept a nimble engineering team, and delayed building a proper company. And they were successful because of it. They kept experimenting & improving their metrics, using cohort analysis to stay focused and keep questioning the status quo – not to be distracted by vanity metrics.

“The people who signed up in the first month: Are they still using it today? Often in social startups you’ll see people sign up, use it for a couple of months, and then never use it again. This weird effect where, because your sign-up rate is so high, your active users seems to stay pretty much the same. Like a revolving door.”
– Kevin Systrom at TC Disrupt 2011

When you dive into the details, Instagram tells a fascinating story of focused engineers innovating in small batches and delivering one superb user experience. And they were rewarded for it.

Lets talk more about what actually makes the difference, and not blindly build the “Instagram for X”.