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The Perfect Process Versus The Right Process

Why outline a business model before customer discovery?

I often get initial pushback from other coaches when I first present my step-by-step continuous innovation roadmap:

The biggest objection typically centers around ordering business modeling before customer/problem discovery.

Why encourage teams to think about their solution, pricing, and go-to-market strategy before they have validated their customer and problem assumptions?

Aren’t “customer and problem” the foundational pillars of any business model? Shouldn’t we first encourage the team to understand their customers and problems before planning their solution?

This is the perfect difference between a right process that should work and a battle-tested process that does.

There is often a tension between the perfect process and the right process.

“The right process will product the right results.”
- Jeffrey Liker, The Toyota Way

The perfect process requires the wisdom of experience earned over time through bad judgments. Trying to teach the perfect process to beginners seldom works because they lack this context.

The right process, on the other hand, meets beginners where they are. It patiently guides the beginner through a series of self-discoveries that trigger the right mindset shifts and cause a transformation.

The perfect process is for experts.
The right process is for beginners.

There are three reasons I landed on this specific order:

  1. Creating transformation requires meeting people where they are, not where you'd like them to be.
  2. Unconstrained customer discovery is a recipe for aimless wandering and false positives.
  3. Lowering inertia and friction is key for driving transformation.

Let’s walk through these reasons.

1. Creating transformation requires meeting people where they are, not where you'd like them to be.

Yes, most teams I encounter have prematurely fallen in love with their solution, but love isn’t rational. Simply telling them not to isn’t going to change that.

Unless you’re putting a team together at a large company or agency to explore a specific market opportunity they weren’t already passionate about, founders always have a solution in their minds. Making them pretend it doesn’t exist and forcing them to spend weeks of customer discovery isn’t going to cause a drastic pivot or mindset shift.

I’ve seen dozens of teams completely ignore well-crafted problem statements handed to them on a platter during a customer interview because they didn’t match their definition of the problem.

Reasonably smart people can rationalize anything and entrepreneurs are especially gifted at this.

There’s a reason they collect basic body vitals at the doctor’s office before you get to meet the doctor. Before you can cause a transformation, you need to collect baseline data.

I use business modeling for this purpose.

Business modeling has nothing to do with validation but with cataloging key assumptions. I ask the team to model their version of a perfect plan. I want this plan to have strong assertions and beliefs because it’s very hard to test a vague idea.

Lean Canvas is my preferred tool for this.

To avoid analysis/paralysis, it’s important to time-box this step. I use 20 minutes. Most founders are action-minded to start, so this is seldom an issue.

Once their “perfect plan” is laid, I show them how to stress-test their plan (not mine), and if/when it breaks, it creates the perfect opening for a mindset shift.

Mindset shift = transformation.

2. Unconstrained customer discovery is a recipe for aimless wandering and false positives.

The other issue I have with rushing into customer discovery is that if this step is not properly constrained, it’s easy to collect enough insights to fill a report, but if these insights don’t lead to a repeatable and scalable business model, it can be all for nothing.

In other words, there is no shortage of problems. The key is uncovering problems worth solving.

Finding a problem worth solving is relative to the founder’s business model goal, which is defined during the business modeling step as part of viability stress-testing.

Fermi Estimation and Traction Roadmap are my preferred tools for this.

In my experience, most ideas fail the first pass of viability stress testing, and fixing the model subjects the team to yet more mindset shifts.

The outputs from this exercise (early adopter segmentation and target pricing) act as constraining inputs that inform more productive customer discovery.

Why spend 4 weeks interviewing non-customers?

3. Lowering inertia and friction is key for driving transformation.

Talking to customers is hard. Talking to customers well is even harder. If the first step you ask your team to take is going to be hard and something they’ve never done before, like talking to customers, inertia (the comfort of the old way) and friction (anxiety) will conspire to derail your well-intentioned advice.

Last time, I shared the importance of intrinsically motivating teams to want to talk to customers versus extrinsically motivating them.

This starts in the business modeling step.

Having well-defined constraints for customer discovery helps reduce friction and anxiety and is a start. I apply lowering friction even a step earlier.

If I were building the perfect right process today, I wouldn’t start with customer discovery (for the reasons above) or even the Lean Canvas, but the Rapid Viability Test (Fermi Estimate).

As a serial founder, when I get hit with an idea today, I don’t sketch out a Lean Canvas but test the idea’s viability against my minimum success criteria goal. If it falls short, I’m done with it. Otherwise, I’ll model it out more and stress-test it further.

I say no to far more things than yes after a 5-minute stress test.

This is not something most first-time founders are ready for, which is why I fall back to meeting the founders where they are (reason #1) and pick the Lean Canvas creation as the first low-friction activity in the battle-tested roadmap above.

“The best is often the enemy of the good.”
- Unknown

Key takeaways:

  • Meet the founders where they are before charting a course for transformation.
  • Trigger founders for change by asking the right questions.
  • The first step is always the hardest. Lower friction to overcome inertia.

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