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The Lean Canvas Diagnostic: Part 1 of 7 - Backstory

Understanding a team's chain of beliefs

👋 Hi there - I’m Ash. I share battle-tested recipes, strategies, and how-tos for systematically building repeatable and scalable business models delivered to your inbox every week.

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In the next series of posts, I’ll outline my recipe (Lean Canvas Diagnostic) for coaching an early-stage product team to focus on “right action, right time”.

Right action, right time: At any given time, there are a few key actions that stand to drive the biggest impact. Focus on those and ignore the rest.

Who’s it for?

  • Idea stage teams,
  • pre-launch teams, and
  • post-launch teams.


The only prerequisite is a completed Lean Canvas, which we review together during the call. I do my best to keep this a low-friction step by explicitly instructing the team to

  • not spend more than 20 minutes on their Lean Canvas,
  • not do any other reading or prework to fill the canvas, and
  • skip any boxes they don’t understand.


Get a team to focus on the key action(s) that stand to drive the greatest impact on their business model within a 30-45 minute coaching session.


This is the 7-step meta-script I use for the Lean Canvas diagnostic:

I’ll cover Backstory in this post and the others in subsequent posts.

1. Backstory

I start each session by baselining the team and their business model by instructing them to spend the first five minutes walking me through their Lean Canvas.

I ask them not to simply read what’s on the canvas because I can read faster than they can talk. But, instead focus on things like:

  • the origin story of their idea,
  • progress-to-date, and
  • what’s keeping them up at night.

Unsurprisingly, they’ll also say many things not captured on their Lean Canvas, which is why I consider a “Lean Canvas in combination with a 5 min narrative overview” the best (and fastest) way to come up to speed on a project.

While they are talking, I ask several qualifying questions to build a few mental models in my head that I use in my diagnosis.

The first is the team’s chain of beliefs.

Mental Model #1: Chain of Beliefs

Everything we know is built on a chain of beliefs.

A business model story is built upon a set of key assumptions or foundational beliefs that stack on one another. These beliefs define how a team thinks (mindsets and worldviews) and prioritize risks. If these foundational beliefs are shaky, the entire business model comes crashing down. And so it’s critical to start here.

The best way to reveal a team’s chain of beliefs is by unpacking their origin story, progress-to-date, and what’s keeping them up at night.

Origin Story

These are the top three origin story types that I typically encounter:

  1. Solution-centric: These ideas are seeded with a desire to use a new invention (or technology) to solve a problem.
  2. Revenue-centric: These ideas are seeded with a desire to find a market opportunity worth pursuing, i.e., making money.
  3. Unfair-advantage-centric: These ideas are seeded with a desire to commercialize an in-house invention or leverage some other unfair advantage (like channels) toward building a business model.

It’s important to emphasize that there is no good or bad origin story (or box on the Lean Canvas) for starting an idea.

Good ideas can come from anywhere:

1. Scratch your itch
2. R&D/Invention
3. Analogs
4. Accidental discovery
5. Customer requests
6. External changes
7. Growth Directive
8. Exploit an Unfair Advantage
9. Innovation Theory

Understanding the strength of their foundational beliefs is more important than where they started. I do this by asking teams to share how they know what they know, which I then mentally rank into one of three buckets:

  1. Leap of faith (gut instinct)
  2. Anecodal evidence (observation)
  3. Empirical evidence (fact)


Next, I pay attention to what they have done to move their idea forward.

  • Did they take a build-first, investor-first, or customer-first approach to validate their idea?
  • Do they have traction? If yes, what kind of traction: interest, unpaid pilots, paid pilots, happy customers?
  • Where are they headed next? More specifically, what’s their 90-day goal?

What’s keeping them up at night?

The final piece of the puzzle is understanding their assessment of their riskiest assumptions or key obstacles holding them back from achieving their 90-day goal.

It’s important to emphasize that these first 5-10 minutes aren’t about coaching (yet) but active listening.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
- Stephen Covey

I am trying to understand how the team thinks, which will be vital in effecting a mindset change (if needed) later in the session.

Next time, I’ll cover the next mental model I build: Business Model Archetype.

The Lean Canvas Diagnostic 7-Part Series TOC

  1. Backstory
  2. Structure
  3. Identify Riskiest Assumptions
  4. Desirability Stress Testing
  5. Viability Stress Testing
  6. Feasibility Stress Testing
  7. Right action, right time

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