Written by:

Holly Macdonald


April 13, 2012

Recently, I’ve  been working on a project that involves tech entrepreneurs who use a lot of lean thinking in their approach to developing their products and businesses. I have found the process interesting as a small business owner (although I’m not sure I’d qualify as an entrepreneur, I do feel I’ve got a strong entrepreneurial streak), but also parallel applications to designing and developing learning solutions.

  • Minimum Viable Product as a framework for learning design – the essence of “MVP” is that you release your product with the least amount of features needed to satisfy your first wave of customers. It doesn’t mean putting out an inferior product, it just means that what you as the product owner/developer think your product needs is irrelevant and what matters is whether or not your customers value it. For instructional designers, the lessons are pretty obvious: if you and/or your subject matter expert think they “need” to know this, you need to validate that with the audience/end user.  This is really an iterative method with rigour in testing your “hypotheses”, gathering data and modifying your next release based on customer feedback.
  • Technology Adoption Learning Curve – by Geoffery Moore in his Crossing the Chasm book – is a categorization or segmentation of users and you really need to treat those with different drivers and characteristics differently. The “early adopters” are the ones who love tech products and are willing to accept something that is a little buggy or incomplete because they see the value in the solution (warts and all). For instructional designers on e-learning projects, this is a fairly classic “pilot” group that we’d release our learning solution to and have them help us perfect it for the masses. But, it’s a good reminder about not treating your learner as one homogenous blob of people (“them”), but recognizing they have different perspectives about technology.
  • Customer development – Steve Blank has godlike status in the tech entrepreneur world (Silicon Valley elite) and he talks about making sure you have customers first. Again, a no brainer – much like the MVP concept, it really is about being learner-centric (in the entrepreneur’s case it would customer-centric). Steve is a strong proponent of “getting out of the building”, which instructional designers might adjust to “get out of the office”. His premise is that you need to validate your idea with actual customers through interviews and discussions. Instructional designers do this as part of their needs analysis, however, it is important in our world to go beyond an interview and gather as much direct, observational information as possible. This might be watching them at work, reviewing outputs, gathering perspectives from other stakeholders = managers, customers and peers.
  • Business model generation – the other rock star is Alex Osterwalder who created a “one page” visual representation of your business model (how your idea/product actually gets to the customer, makes money, etc). This is a fantastic idea for an instructional designer to adopt as well, especially those that are under pressure to demonstrate “ROI”. I think I’ll come up with a modified version for instructional design to see how it works.
  • Visual thinking is also a strong trend in the tech entrepreneur world that has real cross-over appeal. Being able to visually define, describe, explain and all that is a good foundational skill set for anyone purporting to be in a “helping” role. If you are developing a product/service, presumably it is to help people do something, and if you design learning the exact same would be true.

The other thing that struck me, is how important it is to stretch outside of your industry to seek connections and find new perspectives. I was surprised at the similarities and wondered if the entrepreneur/start-up world could learn anything from the “learning field”.