There are many ways to view Lean. Lean is a business science. It is a product development method. And in many ways, it is a communication medium. In my research with startups, I’ve also heard Lean referred to as a religion.
If Lean is a “religion” in the new startup era, I’d like to propose another way to view Lean in practice. In this piece, I will show how Lean as a practice within startups fits the mold of a ritual—and how impactful such rituals can be. But I also want to suggest how Lean as a ritualized, or routine, practice can be problematic.
But first, a little background on Lean.
I have been studying startups that are participating in accelerator programs globally. Through my experience and close examination of startups and innovation, I found an underlying thread that connects them—it is, invariably, Lean. Lean Startup helped spur a startup mania around the globe. It was the first model to really describe startup creation as a science.
The concept of Lean traces its roots back to Lean Production, a term coined in the 1990s to describe the Toyota Production System—a socio-technical system that combines a distinct management philosophy and practices. Subsequently, others have borrowed the term to emphasize a focus on reducing waste and continuous refinement, although the term is often confused with meaning small teams or low monetary cost. Lean Startup, coined by Eric Ries (2011), is a methodology emerging from Silicon Valley that focuses on these two main concepts.
Lean as a Business Development Approach
For the people who use it, Lean is a framework to create business value. It guides teams to focus on a real problem to solve and to test that solution through experimentation. This helps teams prioritize against the riskiest aspects of the business. It focuses on building just enough to experiment and defers all answers to experimental results. Lean helps focus on solving one problem at a time. Combined with customer development processes, this helps teams define the scope of the product. While the form of the product may change throughout the Lean process, the motivation and overarching vision of the team should remain intact.
Lean as a Product Development Method
Lean is also a model of innovation focused on experimentation and rapid iteration. The entire product development cycle is about building a hypothesis, testing, learning, and iterating on it. Lean tests for product viability. Using the Build-Measure-Learn framework, a startup can focus on reducing the time and labor involved in developing the product, putting products to test before too much investment.
The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is the bare minimum product (or non-technology-based experiment) a team can build to use and test a number of assumptions. By testing this with early adopters, startups can continue to iterate, using Agile development practices such as Scrum or other Kanban (a signboard/scheduling system) principles to conduct short product development sprints, making tiny adjustments or forcing big pivots. Lean can help discover what are the minimum features. It forces you to go out and learn and refine your product, while Agile development allows teams to realize the product in a defined time frame.
The Spread of Lean Startup Culture Through Accelerators
Lean has become a de facto gatekeeper. It establishes a benchmark, a way of life, vocabularies through which to communicate. And it has spread rapidly as the core curricula of accelerators as they have sprouted up around the world.
I got to know Lean well through research conducted within startup accelerators globally. Accelerators are sort of like incubators which foster high-tech startups through investment and by providing the soft infrastructure to enable tech entrepreneurship. They bring together cohorts of international startups to develop their teams and products and learn from each other in a limited duration “boot camp,” based on Lean models of innovation.
Importantly, accelerators function as a social system. We can look at accelerators as Bourdieu (1986) looked at education: as institutions that reproduce the social order. Bourdieu initially delineated three types of capital: economic, social, and cultural. Using this lens, we see accelerators as arbiters of all three types of capital: economic capital, through seed-funding; social capital, through the building and curation of networks of founders, mentors, investors, service providers, and others involved in the startup community; and cultural capital, instilling certain ways of behaving, certain knowledge and skills to give them status. And at heart of these manifestations is Lean.
Lean as a Ritual
As a ritual, Lean is a symbolic process of action that has tremendous cognitive, emotional, and behavioral power. It is observable in practice, along with its affiliated symbols and myths. But it also alludes to some of the values and beliefs of startup culture, and some of the underlying assumptions at the root of tech entrepreneurialism.
Just as Suzanne Thomas (2010) noted in her EPIC piece on the ethnographic arts, there is great value in conducting such work as a ritual process and a rite of passage. Similarly, Lean as a ritual can have great power and value. It can function as a system of meaning and a ritual structure, engendering faith in the team and product, and transforming the startups themselves.
Lean + Meaning
Lean provides meaning and is embedded with symbols. Build-measure-learn can be seen as a ritual set of processes utilizing concepts, objects, data, and actions in a sequence to provide a cognitive framework. The whole point is to validate an idea. That makes the process —and where you are in it— meaningful and valuable.
It serves as a tangible way to convey very abstract ideas, through symbolic representations, like the Lean Canvas. And it provides a vocabulary to communicate within the team and with stakeholders through common syntaxes such as “early adopters,” “product-market-fit,” and “problem-solution-fit.”
Lean also instills important values about startup culture by forcing experimentation, imperfection, and confidence in one’s product. Implicitly, these promote core values like taking risks, accepting failure, valuing openness, collaboration, and a flat hierarchy, and being resourceful.
The Build-Measure-Learn Doctrine
Like religious rituals, Lean attempts to control the unpredictable and unknowable. It delineates processes bound by rules and specifying attention and significance. Performing these processes helps to make sense out of the chaos of working under radical uncertainty, easing startups’ anxieties.
As a ritual, Lean also helps to manage a startup’s work structure. It gives the team a direction and pre-defined ways of knowing what to do next. Agile sprints, timeboxing activities, and sequential milestones help create a temporal structure and rhythm.
Rituals also help signify and emphasize important events. Validation is a significant event, although it perhaps gets less and less significant as iterative cycles continue. A key event that Lean processes create is forcing a pivot. The team moves into an entirely new direction.
Belief + Faith
As with any ritual, the process separates the believers from the non-believers. Within a startup group, a believers’ adherence to Lean signals commitment to the team. Engendering trust in the process therefore also creates social cohesion. Those unwilling to go through the process of testing out and validating or rejecting the idea show lack of commitment that can lead to dissension.
In performing the process together, it also creates consensus in the group. Arjun Appadurai identified ritual as “a flexible formula of performances through which social effects are produced and new states of feeling and connection are created” (2004: 79).
Lean is also an embodied, experiential process. And as such, it underlies the conviction of the startup and gives them faith— in themselves. As Geertz said: “In a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turn out to be the same world, producing thus that idiosyncratic transformation in one’s sense of reality…” (1973: 112).
That is to say, performing Lean processes both embodies the way things should be and also makes them so. Doing the process makes it real.
Social Order + Transformation
Lean also helps create and reinforce social order through rules, shared meaning, and roles. Each iteration through the process gives this more definition. In the beginning teams are working in the abstract— just trying to figure out what to do next. As they move forward and iterate, the specific roles of individuals become clearer.
As startups move through these processes, it both transforms them and creates group solidarity. Using Turner’s (1967) view, we can see Lean as a liminal space, whereby the founders are inducted into a culture and go through their own unique challenges. The teams are transformed from a group with a nebulous idea to a solidified startup through this rite of passage. Going through this arduous process together creates a sense of communitas.
Importantly, all of this ritual plays a deep role in legitimizing a startup within the larger startup community. Lean is a ritual that a startup is supposed to go through.
Going back to Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital, there are three main forms: embodied, objectified, and institutionalized. Each of these three forms of cultural capital provide startups with distinct advantages and power within the larger startup ecosystem or community- at the individual level, within the product, and for the startup team itself. Together, they constitute advantage or disadvantage in being part of startup society— determining whether startups are taken seriously by investors and others.
Lean as a Ritualized Practice
Now I’d like to talk about Lean as a different sort of ritual- as a quotidian, routine practice.
The thing is, rituals are all about meaning. If you detach Lean from meaning, it becomes a routine and loses much of its value. This is what I will call “ritualized.” This can be dangerous in a couple of ways. For the true believers, they stop questioning. For the pseudo believers, Lean is a mere motion that they go through- a routine.
In both cases, people stop thinking critically about why things are done in this specific way.
I saw this first hand in startup teams both in the US and other countries. In a startup world, where Lean is both the language and a stamp of approval, startups tend to follow it blindly, often to their own detriment.
Beyond the terminologies and the keywords, startups and stakeholders are obsessed with metrics. Metrics play a large role in Lean. They are a form of currency.
In conversations, I have often heard people boast about conversion rates or refer to benchmarks. These symbolic representations of a startup’s progress help create boundaries and put the subject matter in context. Investors and founders nod and fire off questions based on their perception of how well, or how poorly, a startup is doing, based on such metrics.
Arguably, these metrics— as symbols—do provide meaning, which can be helpful in the right context. They act as a barometer to help startups align their resources and make key decisions. However, it comes at a cost in more than a few ways, especially when the metrics are not evaluated critically.
In an accelerator setting where I observed startups, metrics were used to measure the progress of the teams and compare their progress to one another. Many of these were meant to measure milestones that tie back to the Lean Canvas and Business Model Generation. The teams were encouraged to reach these milestones in order to move forward in their Lean Startup journey.
But where metrics provide direction, they can also add pressure for the teams to perform and compete, without questioning the goals. For instance, teams try to optimize for things like conversion rates before they are even certain of their business direction. When a team is too eager to move forward to obtain a milestone, are they really optimizing for the right thing?
Another common issue is that these benchmarks are often one-size-fit-all. Metrics tend to be overly-simplistic representations of a complex system. The emphasis on metrics can pose a danger by giving false reassurance of progress and growth. Or, on the other hand, can force abandonment of an idea —a pivot— prematurely.
Lastly, and perhaps most frustrating for startups, is these symbolic metrics can add bureaucratic overhead. They force teams to work within that specific structure to signal commitment, rather than following their own journey.
The Lean Mantra
Rituals are great when they communicate a common value and provide structure and a social order. But when they are blindly followed and stepped through as a motion, they can create problems.
As Lean and metrics become the main communication medium in which stakeholders connect with one another, there is a question of just how many people are actually practitioners of Lean.
For startups, there is no room to doubt whether Lean is the right methodology to follow in their unique scenario. Expectant stakeholders want to hear how a startup benchmarks against others. They do not care to hear the founders pose philosophical questions about Lean.
Instead of enhancing group solidarity and helping founders navigating uncertainties, the expectation of participation in Lean can create opposite effects. It can add social pressure, create hollow commitments, and induce stress in being included as part of the club. There is a high cost associated with perceived participation.
More often than not, startup founders are happy to say they practice Lean. They use the metrics, the lingo, and and go through the motions, but it is often a meaningless mantra. And it perpetuates because there is a need to fit in.
An Unquestioned Process
One of the dangers from not thinking critically above all, is to take Lean’s scientific method as the right path for granted. The Lean Startup model assumes a linear and binary approach to finding a solution to a problem within a complex system.
When assumptions are not weighed carefully and evaluated with a discount—in other words, not being thought through critically—this systemic problem pollutes the results, findings, and conclusions of a Lean experiment. This is a dangerous outcome from following the methodology blindly. It turns a model for reality into a model of reality, creating a delusion, a so-called “false-positive.”
Lean can also become a cyclical list of things to do and fall short of its purpose. The focus on process can result in “analysis paralysis,” which is crippling to many startups. Even more alarming, it can conclude in self-fulfilling prophecy and draw on a local maximum. On this point, I’ll expand.
Lean may or may not always be the most effective approach to a problem. Like all frameworks and models, there are situations where Lean is the best cognitive framework, and there are times it isn’t. While Lean is nimble in terms of both process and overhead, Lean is also restrictive.
It relies on an iterative approach that theoretically predicates its maximum outcome to the most idealistic vision constructed by a priori assumptions going into the process. This is what critics call the local-maximum problem of Lean. It is hard to imagine within such a dogmatic setting, a Lean culture that produces disruptive products through such unquestioned iterative processes.
On Doubt, Combining Approaches, and Dropping Your Tools
These are not critiques of Lean as a methodology. Lean can be seen as valuable in many lights. It is a set of processes, or a philosophy that creates value as a business development approach. It is a method to develop innovative products through experimentation, learning, and iteration. And, it is a ritual that guides startups, serving as a system of meaning, a model for behaving and a performative outlet. But when Lean is merely ritualized— a routine lacking meaning— we must be careful.
Like any approach, there are limitations. But Lean is often seen as panacea for startups— and other organizations trying to innovate. When oversimplified, not properly adhered to, or left unquestioned, a ritual process can exacerbate problems.
Which leads to my larger question. Whether or not you are familiar with Lean, this scenario paints a picture of any unquestioned approach. Why, when, and how do you question your methods or approach?
I have three thoughts to share on this. First, we should think about how we can we use doubt generatively, as Locke, Golden-Biddle, and Feldman (2008) have suggested. How can we incorporate doubt and the processes of discovery into our notions of “methodology”?
Second, we should consider ways of combining methods or approaches when neither alone satisfies our needs— especially in conditions of uncertainty. Regarding Lean, I think there are very good opportunities to combine it with design thinking or other methods for a more robust approach. How do we identify such synergistic approaches?
And finally, we should also contemplate when to drop “the tools that weigh us down,” as Karl Weick (1996) has suggested in Organizational Studies. As he says: “Identity, the fusion of tools with group membership, makes it hard for firefighters to consider tools as something apart from themselves that can be discarded, just as it makes it hard for scholars to consider concepts as something apart from themselves” (1996: 312). Or, better said with regard to the perspective of ethnographic researchers in industry: How to we separate our methods from our identity and open inquiry into what we are doing?
Appadurai, Arjun. 2004. The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition. Culture and Public Action. V. Rao and M. Walton (eds.) Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 59-84.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. The Forms of Capital. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. J. Richardson (ed.) New York: Greenwood, 241-258.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Locke, K., Golden-Biddle, K., & Feldman, M. S. 2008. Perspective-making doubt generative: Rethinking the role of doubt in the research process. Organization Science, 19(6), 907-918.
Ries, Eric. 2011. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. New York: Crown Publishing.
Thomas, Suzanne L. 2010 The Martial Ethnographic Arts. EPIC Proceedings. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 237-249, https://www.epicpeople.org/the-martial-ethnographic-arts/
Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Weick, K. E. 1996. Drop your tools: An allegory for organizational studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 301-313.
Julia Haines in a PhD candidate in Informatics at UC Irvine and a fellow with the Intel Science & Technology Center for Social Computing. She studies innovation practices, social creativity, and transnational work. Her current research focuses on accelerators and the decentralization and diffusion of tech startups globally.