In a ‘traditional’ start-up or new project initiative, a company develops a concept, builds a budget and market plan, gathers resources, assembles working teams, and constructs a full-blown, feature-rich version of their idea before releasing it for sale to grateful consumers. If consumers turn out to be less grateful than anticipated, you are, essentially, screwed.
You are particularly screwed if you make such an expensive, time-consuming mistake in the high-speed, high-stakes, pioneer world of high tech products and services. Which is why the process and practice of lean start-up is gaining such traction. In a lean start-up, you develop a hypothesis alongside your product, and you test that hypothesis early and often with real people before you dive in. And even in production, you build in incremental and iterative ways rather than full-on, testing always as you go…again, with real people.
You can already imagine how traditional cultural production tracks against traditional start-up process — lots of front-end work, on an artist- or organization-devised program, with the curtain or doors opening only when it’s fully formed (and ready for a grateful audience). Although it doesn’t always have to work that way. And Gwydion Suilebhan offers some great insights on how the alternate ‘agile’ process might work in the theater.
But today I’m less focused on the process than the idea of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). In the lean startup, the MVP is the way you test your assumptions with potential constituents. If you’re profit-seeking, your MVP is how you answer the question: “What is the smallest or least complicated problem that the customer will pay us to solve?” If you’re impact-seeking, you might ask: “What is the smallest or least complicated way to convey my creative idea to provoke an informed response?”
The goal isn’t to show all the bells and whistles. Rather, the goal is to test your core assumptions about your constituents, their needs, their motivations, and their behaviors. That means building an MVP that can be rebuilt, recycled, or trashed without extensive effort.
One of the poster children for the MVP is DropBox, which developed the cross-platform file synchronization service before anyone knew what that was, or that they needed it so desperately.
Sidestepping the obvious landmines about connecting this idea to the arts (the arts are not a ‘product’, they don’t solve a practical ‘problem’ for ‘consumers,’ they’re driven by other things than ‘profit,’ and creative vision and realization by extraordinary people is often essential to their ‘success’), the core ideas of the lean start-up and the Minimum Viable Product not only have potential but increasing relevance.
What would an MVP look like for a nonprofit, creative endeavor? It could be as simple as a mock season brochure, describing an idea for a series of works and their context. It could be a reading or a public workshop. It could be a series of questions for the artistic team to ask out loud, one-on-one with community members, about how their vision matches human needs or hungers. It could be an excerpt or monologue or musical work or visual. It could be a scale model of a set or a building or a creative composition.
We use all of these techniques already, but usually to ‘sell’ our idea to a donor or audience member. Not to test and discover whether we’re building the right thing.
The traditional start-up is designed to minimize risk of failure, by front-loading expert opinion and effort, and piling on preemptive planning. The lean start-up is designed to minimize the cost of failure, so that smart people can fail early and often, in direct communication with the people they seek to serve.
As we’re all flailing about increasing costs, decreasing earned and contributed income, and a need to innovate and engage, it’s worth exploring not only our product, but our process for making it.