Make your problems tangible

I re-read Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup this week largely because our partner companies do things a little differently to what I would describe as ‘classic lean startup’ and I wanted to get clearer on what the differences are and why. I don’t usually enjoy re-reading books, but this time I had lots of a-ha moments and it was a joy. It’s a very good book and deserving of it’s reputation.

One of Eric’s pieces of advice is to ‘make your problems tangible’. At the time he is recommending companies use cohort analysis instead of aggregated customer analytics so they can see whether changes to the product are making any difference. His point is that the only way you can see differences is to compare the behaviour of customers recruited since with earlier cohorts. If the product changes aren’t making any difference then growth in engagement or some other customer metric won’t be what you hoped for and you will have a nagging feeling that something isn’t working as planned. The cohort analysis makes the problem tangible.

That’s great advice in and of itself but it extends to all other areas. If you have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right think hard about how to make the problem tangible. Once a problem is tangible it’s much easier to fix it. In the above example the feedback loop from customers back to development gets much quicker making it easier for the dev team to cycle through ideas until they find something that works.

Other activities that can make problems tangible include:

  • Observing customers
  • Interviewing customers
  • 1-2-1s between team members and management
  • Encouraging feedback and a transparent culture generally
  • Unit tests

The list could go on and on. The point is to find ways to shine light on problem areas.


  • Hi Nic, I’ve been enjoying your analysis on lean methodology. I think the problem with customer analytics is that sometimes customers do not know what they want, and not necessarily reliable indicators for product launch success. (eg, Ouya and its debacle).

    IMHO, the lean methodology is better for certain sectors: e-commerce and mobile gaming, as examples, however, in other sectors where there is a large time devoted to R&D, especially MedTech, BioTech, Video Games, AR Games, Wearable Technology etc, the lean methodology is antagonistic to progress.

  • Thanks Sierra!

    Some sectors definitely work better with lean approaches than others, but even in sectors where big budget R&D is required some of the user research techniques from lean are a big step forward from traditional focus groups and surveys. Also, once the R&D is done an iterative approach to product development still makes sense.

    Look at the way Tesla iterates on it’s car software post launch.

  • That makes a lot of sense. Hope you had a nice weekend. I do think it is worth noting though that Tesla was near bankruptcy in 2013- just 2 years ago, before the Google founders started investing in the company.

    What seems more effective and more powerful than lean methodology is choosing the right investors who understand a company’s vision and willing to create market value.

  • Hi Sierra – yes, every company has it’s own path with its own ups and downs. Methodologies are a great help, but not a complete answer.