Lean Startup Certification

Why isn’t there a certification program for Lean Startup?

Would that be an oxymoron? A certification for being unorthodox?

Should there be a certification system for taking unorthodox approaches?

Any playbook on innovation methodologies is bound to be obsolete by the time it is published. I worked with a team of entrepreneurs to write The Real Startup Book in 2015, and it needs a 2.0 badly.

About seven years ago, when I was running Lean Startup Circle, Eric Ries and I spoke about this very thing. We agreed that professionalizing Lean Startup ran the danger of making a single source the gatekeeper to what lean startup is, and the default arbiter of who is and who isn’t doing lean startup the right way.

Certification would, by definition, require a level of calcification. A practice based on adaptability would become rigid and inflexible. Someone would have to decide whether the Lean Canvas or the Business Model Canvas was the right canvas, and what constitutes sufficient evidence from a landing-page test.

It's dangerous for one person or organization to determine what Lean Startup is.

 

That much power in any one person’s (or company’s) hands would probably be a bad thing. It would stifle the ability to innovate on how to be innovative. So up to this point, there has been no official Lean Startup certification.

But I must admit, I have changed my mind about whether there should be.

Is Lean Startup Dead?

No, Lean Startup is not dead. But it is looking rather anemic. Here are the search trends of Lean Startup vs. Agile vs. Design Thinking.

As you can see, Lean Startup is not healthy. There are not a lot of people looking for information, there is no central community organization, and many of the local meetup groups have largely been abandoned.

I onboarded many of the group leaders around the world during the years I ran the San Francisco chapter, and I can tell you first-hand that there isn’t much support for setting up more groups or evangelizing. It’s a labor of love, and those of us who are passionate about Lean Startup did it without a paycheck or even a hearty pat on the back. We did it because we had experienced the failure of doggedly pursuing an idea despite a lack of evidence that it was a good one, and learned how success was attainable by a more methodical approach to testing a business idea.

Lean Startup is not dying because of a lack of passionate advocates. Lean Startup is dying because there is no central organization, and there has been no professionalization of the principles and methods like there has been with Agile and Design Thinking.

Where Have the Innovators Gone?

Fortunately, the lessons of Lean Startup have been somewhat absorbed by the mainstream. Startups are at least aware of what the Build-Measure-Learn loop is, even if they don’t always practice it. Everyone says they are building an MVP, even if they just mean prototype. Everyone tries to validate their hypothesis, even if they don’t have a single metric to measure it. So even if the practice of Lean Startup is withering, its principles continue to bloom in its offshoots.

On the other hand….well…see above. Most of the people who know about Lean Startup don’t actually practice it. Their experiments are just pats on the back because confirmation bias makes them exercises in self-congratulations. Their hypotheses sound like horoscopes. They could be right, they could be wrong — the predictions are too vague to be useful.

But the principles of Lean Startup continue to thrive in the Agile and Design Thinking communities. Book after book on these practices echo the deeply embedded philosophy that Eric espoused. The principles of delivering customer-centric value and avoiding waste are the same. Some frameworks explicitly reference Lean Startup as part of their knowledge base.Books on Agile and Design Thinking continue to espouse the theories of Lean Startup.These communities have a degree of organization and professionalism that the Lean Startup community lacks. There are structured programs to teach various methodologies such as Scrum. Most importantly, there is enough understanding and respect for Scrum in the corporate community to not only have official job openings for Scrum Masters, but also to be mocked by the Silicon Valley TV show.

So is it necessary for Lean Startup to succeed as a brand if the principles are being championed by more successful communities?

We Need Lean Startup

Yes.

While Agile, Design Thinking, and Lean Startup all hold the same basic principles, Lean Startup has a distinct emphasis on overall business viability. Agile and Design Thinking should also do this, but in practice, they do not.

Design Thinking is unfairly relegated to the beginning of projects during the search for Product/Market Fit (P/MF), when numbers are scarce and qualitative research has more influence. We use Design Thinking when adding features or improving the UI, but the designers hold far more sway at the beginning of a project, and less influence as quantitative data (and dollars) start flowing in. The user numbers increase, and business-folk take over.

The business people turn the focus to efficiency and responding to market trends, which can change at a rapid pace. So they push the engineering team to respond quickly, build for scale, and above all else, not break anything. So Agile development and Development Operations (DevOps) are suddenly in high demand.

Agile methodologies are seen as a cure-all by business folks. The engineering team will be able to deliver what the business needs, on time and on budget, leaving the business managers to govern and make important business decisions about business stuff.

Of course, this is not the way it should work. Design, Engineering, and Business people need to work together to deliver a product that is desirable by the customer, feasible to build, and viable to run as a business. But when designers and developers are working in an Agile fashion, and business people simply “don’t get it,” we wind up with the Frankenstein’s monster that is waterscrumfall.

 

When your business people don't understand how your Agile designers and developers work, you get a waterscrumfall.

 

Lean Startup is still valuable because it is written for business people. It speaks the language of KPIs, business goals, and an Agile business model. It paves the path to discussions about innovation strategy and portfolio management. It speaks to the heart of any enterprise that seeks to be sustainable.

Whether it’s a non-profit, government organization, or for-profit business, Lean Startup melds the ideas of Agile with the business language of scale and sustainable impact. And while many companies have tried Agile transformations, too many treat it as a cost reduction and efficiency exercise instead of a complete reworking of how to build a business.

We don’t just need Agile transformation, we need Lean transformation and business model transformation. Ultimately, we want to create an organization that is capable of exponential growth. To do that, we have to think in business terms, and Lean Startup is a critical component of that mindset.

Why We Need Certification

Experience over Knowledge

I was once asked to give a talk to a group of future Lean Startup coaches about methods for testing business ideas at a company known for its embrace of Lean Startup.

After delivering a brief overview of different experiment types, I was surprised by how odd and basic some of the questions were. Some coaches were confusing features for value propositions, and they didn’t know the difference between a concierge test and a Wizard of Oz test.

So I asked, “How many of you have actually done a startup or an innovation project?”

The answer was none. These future coaches had zero experience doing the things they would be teaching others how to do. They were learning to swim by reading a book about swimming, having never set foot in the water.

This is just dangerous.

I was shocked that this group, with no practical experience, was going to be teaching innovation skills. Apparently the company’s head of coaching had inherited the group and was making do as best he could — an admirable attitude for an unenviable position.

We need a reputable, community-supported Lean Startup certification program simply because the things that pass for certification today are….not good.

There are a lot of people, right out of school, who read The Lean Startup and then try to pass themselves off as consultants. They have zero actual experience as lean entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs, and it’s to the detriment of the poor sap that hires them.

These folks treat innovation as an academic exercise instead of a practical skill. Like someone who reads the autobiography of Michael Jordan and thinks they can play basketball — they are useless in a real game.

 

 You can't learn everything from books. You need to innovate in the real world.

There are a few rare people who have zero experience running a startup but happen to be brilliant enough to be useful. But you can count those folks on one hand. It is far from the norm.

The Certification Engine

Many of these fresh-faced coaches are not hopeless. They are not complete charlatans — they believe in what they preach — but they lack experience.

Yet they are certified by their own companies, by academic university degrees, and by less scrupulous companies who are content to issue a Lean Startup certification for attendance alone.

I can’t blame those companies selling bona-fides to their clients who reach a certain base level of knowledge. There is intense demand for certification in the market, and someone is going to fill that demand regardless of whether the certification includes a practical-application component.

There are many large companies that offer some form of certification within their own innovation programs, and that can be a very good thing. Certified “Innovation Catalysts” at Intuit Labs are considered valuable. Their training can even give them a leg up in promotion, encouraging others to get that training as a way to advance their careers and help spread the knowledge through the company.

But most Lean Startup certification programs fail to live up to expectations, churning out people who can talk the talk, but fail to deliver. We need a universal Lean Startup certification simply because certification is already out there.

Innovators Need a Career Path

Companies value innovation skills — at least the technology industry does.

But not every industry understands the value of someone who has been CEO of a failed startup. To the uninitiated, that person looks like a failure, someone not to be hired under any circumstances.

 

Understanding how to learn from failure is an important component of the Lean mindset.

 

But that failure is exactly the experience needed to lead or coach an innovation team. An essential element of Lean is powering through failure — often a series of failures — to reach success. We need leaders who know the risks of entrepreneurship and can lead a team with empathy.

Certification is an imperfect tool, but it does signal the value of an innovator’s skill set to the uninitiated. A graduate degree doesn’t guarantee that someone is smart, or even well-educated, but it does improve the odds that they are. It’s a valuable signal that the person is at least worth interviewing for a job.

Ideally we should certify individual skills, not blanket titles like “innovator.” But for now, a clear career path for aspiring innovators signals that training is valuable and supported by management.

We need certification as a means to establish career paths for innovators and allocate corporate headcount to innovation professionals.

What Lean Startup Certification Should Be

Practical, Not Academic

While the principles of Lean Startup are easy to understand from an academic perspective, the practice is much harder. A good coach needs the practical skills that come from experience, such as identifying potential cognitive biases, setting fail conditions with benchmarks, and running effective retrospectives.

But most of all, coaches need empathy.You need empathy to coach Lean Startup, and you can only get that by working in the real innovation world.A coach can’t just tell a team to run a landing page test. Coaches need to be able to work with teams that have absolute faith in their vision. Coaches need to challenge a team’s assumptions without triggering a defensive reaction. Coaches need to build trust. Coaches need to navigate stakeholders and make sure that teams are free to do their work. Coaches need to be able to work with demoralized teams that have had four failed landing pages and give them an independent perspective about whether it’s time to give up or try another pivot.

All of this requires the empathy that comes from having been in that situation, and the experience to know whether or not they have exhausted the options for a value proposition.

That doesn’t happen without having real-life experience.

Certification, Not Completion

Most innovation courses measure attendance, not performance. The main criteria is that someone actually showed up for the mandatory training, not whether they excelled and can apply the experience.

I acknowledge that certificates of attendance and completion will continue to happen. And they’re necessary to some degree. It gives an incentive to get people in the door. But that can’t be the end of the story.

Just showing up should not be enough to qualify someone for Lean Startup certification.

Certification must mean that someone not only showed up, but applied the material in a practical setting. That’s just one of the reasons we ask that all participants in our training (either live or online) bring a real project to work on.

Working on real projects is more valuable than training with pretend projects, and has the added benefit of being valuable work that the company needs to get done anyway. Most importantly, working on real projects allows a coach or mentor to assess actual skills rather than the capacity for rote memorization.

Reputation-Based, Not Quizzed

It would be wonderful if we could just have someone fill out a quiz and know if they’ve mastered Lean Startup, but that’s not realistic. A quiz cannot capture empathy (see above), and it cannot recognize cognitive biases in the moment.

The main goal of Lean Startup is to avoid things like confirmation bias — the act of seeking out information that agrees with your existing assumptions. But while it’s easy to recognize these biases when taking a test, it’s hard to avoid them when interviewing a customer for your own idea that you are passionate about.

We build products in the real world, not just on paper. So any certification must be based in the real world. Certifiers should see a coach operate and be able to personally vouch for the skills in question.

 

 If you vouch for an innovator, that means you have seen them apply innovation skills in the real world.

When we at Kromatic vouch for someone as an innovation coach, we are putting our reputations on the line. It counts for a lot. If someone we train and certify is unable to perform, that should count against our reputation and degrade the value of that certification. Taking our Innovation Coach Training doesn’t mean we’re going to certify you as a Master Coach, which requires not only real-world experience as an innovator, but time spent working side-by-side with our coaches to teach others.

No one should be willing to vouch for an individual only seen in a classroom. Click To Tweet

A Path Towards Continuous Improvement and Flexibility

Certification must not be a once-in-a-lifetime event. It should be ongoing.

We are always inventing new methods to test for customer demand and evaluate user experience, so any certification must not remain static. Certified coaches must be constantly renewing their skills.

 

 Coaching certification for Lean Startup should be an ongoing process.

The last thing we want is a static guide to innovation like ISO 56000 where we are not allowed to debate and redefine terms. Every company has their own flavor of innovation. It’s important for them to take ownership of their ecosystems and build a culture around that innovation. If someone wants to use the term “smoke test” instead of “fake door test,” that should be allowed.

T-Shaped

There are a LOT of skills in an innovator’s toolbox: from usability testing to correlation analysis; from financial modeling to customer interviews; from writing code to sketching interfaces. Lean Startup coaches cannot realistically be expected to master all of them. But a coach needs to know enough about the different tools to know which one to use and when.

Our Kromatic team knows that when it comes to customer interviews, we should rely on Nick Noreña’s expert knowledge. If it’s usability testing, Manuel Guerrera is the best person to talk to. For financial modeling, it’s probably Megan Kennedy or I. We all coach as a team by playing to each teammate’s strength and trusting in each other.

 

Ideal teammates have a broad knowledge across fields, and a deep expertise in one.

 

A good innovation department needs generalists, but each one should be “T-shaped,” with a broad set of skills but deep expertise in one area. That way everyone knows enough to know what they don’t know, and when to go get help.

Certification should not require a complete mastery of all tools, but must establish a strong foundation and encourage a broad range of knowledge. Specialization in a focus area can come from previous experience, or be built up over time.

Trust-Based

Instead of basing certification on a central authority, certification should take place on a peer-to-peer basis of trust and reputation. Certification should be transparent so that we can see who trained whom and understand someone’s lineage.

Looking at someone’s history should give us some confidence that we understand which school of thought they come from and how they rank compared to their peers. If a coach performs badly, that should reflect on their teachers and ultimately devalue that school of thought (or the literal school that certified them).

Coaches that perform poorly will reflect poorly on the school that certified them.

For techies, yes, this is a P2P trust network that could be enabled on the blockchain, but human networks function in the same way.

The Danger of Certification

The danger still remains that by establishing a global Lean Startup certification, we both calcify the methodology and also create a gatekeeper that can restrict innovation for their own gain, both social and financial. It would be very easy for a company to churn out certificates for attendance and lower costs by standardizing its approach by teaching to the lowest common denominator.

 

Lean Startup should not have a gatekeeper determining what it is and who can teach it.

Unfortunately, without a sea change in the professionalization of Lean Startup, it will continue to be absorbed into the miasma of dogmatic methodologies out there.

I believe there is a way to balance the risks and the rewards of professionalization, starting with the criteria above. A true global Lean Startup Certification program can provide a basic degree of competence and then nurture innovation by allowing different schools of thought to develop in their own direction organically.

Those schools can then pass on their reputation via certification. Over time, the Lean Startup community will decide for itself what approaches worked best, and what schools of thought have yielded the best results. Then those best practices will be absorbed by the underperformers, and the cycle of improvement continues.

Lessons Learned

  • Lean Startup is still important and we shouldn’t abandon it.
  • Certification is happening whether we like it or not.
  • Certification should:
    • Teach through experience, not academic books.
    • Separate certificates of attendance from certificates of mastery.
    • Validate mastery in the real world, not through a pop quiz.
    • Continuously improve.
    • Be foundational and broad, but allow for specialization.
    • Be a peer-to-peer network of trust.

 

What do you think of Lean Startup certification? Write it in the comments below.