Tim Hordern

I ♥ building amazing products and teams. QA + Product + DevOps + Fast = Awesome.

Minimally Minimal Minimums

Recently I’ve come across increasing numbers of project managers, product owners and project teams adopting the buzzwords of the Lean Startup in their descriptions of their products. Even new adopters of Agile are spouting the mantras: “minimum marketable feature, minimum viable product, lean, insert buzzword here, etc, etc…”

But here’s the thing. None of these people are actually changing their behaviour, their priorities or their products to do what the terms are describing.

This is classic cargo-culting. We’re repeating the words of the Lean Startup hoping that magically we’ll land at the right product for the right customer at the right time.

I hear lots of teams defining a minimum marketable feature. Everybody talks about having an MVP. Everybody also seems to fail to accurately define what an MVP is. The minimum marketable feature seems to be what we used to call a release and the MVP used to be called a project (or worse, a transformation).

If we just exchange the words that we use to describe something, nothing really changes. We’re just using different lingo for the exact same thing. Even faster than we lost sight of what the terms of agile meant (that took a few years at least), we’ve lost sight of what the ideals of the Lean Startup espoused. The term has become meaningless.

Maybe it’s the age-old story of if all you have is an hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Or in this case, if all you have is a giant backlog of stories, then everything looks like an MVP.

A minimum marketable feature is exactly what it describes - the absolute bare essentials to complete part of an idea, in order to take it to the market in order to test that hypothesis. Pretty much every project that I come across that had the idea of the minimum marketable feature has done too much work to just test the idea.

Really doing the minimum

Let’s take an example. Someone has the idea that having videos on a page would help boost conversions? Here’s a tip - building a video management system to handle displaying videos on that page is not the minimum you need to test the idea. How do you even know that the idea of videos will boost conversions? What data do you have? What would it take to test that idea? Would it really take a whole video system to test the idea? Could you just upload some videos onto the page? Could you just put a picture of the video content instead of the video? Could you just put up a picture placeholder without having even invested any effort in getting video content?

Let’s try putting up really basic pictures of what might be in the videos. If you put up those pictures and you find your conversion rate jumps, then awesome - you know where to allocate resources. Go forth and try out adding a video to the page. See what happens then. Rinse, add a bit more, repeat.

But better than that, if you find out that the pictures/videos do nothing (or worse, harm your sales), then you’ve saved yourself some time, some money and a whole lot of team heartache. That’s truly a minimum markable feature.

What about a MVP? What could you do to test your product concept right now (with the least amount of effort possible)? What’s the true minimum that your product needs? Remember viable is different to sustainable: it doesn’t have to live forever. It’s not your production product, it’s a test. And only a test.

Let’s say you’re building an online car rental system. Your going-in assumption is that people will want to rent cars online. How could you test that? What’s the absolute minimum product did you could go to the market with the test that idea? We could build a barebones online scheduling and rental system with car locations. That’s sort of minimalist. Or being even more minimalist/bootstrapped, we could just build an email form and manage actual rentals offline in a spreadsheet. If our marketing and engagement works, and people actually register with that email form, then we know we’ve got something there.

It’s our responsibility as well

There’s also an element of our agile is best agile at play here as well.

As product people, we’re tasked with building things as fast as we can. We’re particularly bad at testing those ideas as fast as we can. We live in little bubbles.

We love the idea of the lean startup, mostly because a) we like shipping things and b) we like the idea that what we’re building might actually be used.

As experienced Agile practictioners, we like being able to rapidly change ideas and our path. We fail fast. We like working in strong teams and working closely with customers. But we’re also pretty inwardly-focused, only thinking of our internal performance and not testing our work in the real world. We also live in little bubbles. So let’s take a quick reality check, step back and ask if we’re using the wrong terms and not focusing on validating assumptions.

Especially when you’re dealing with people and teams who are not so used to the idea of validating ideas in the real world, using terms like MVP to describe months upon months of work is just wrong. It hurts the morale of the team and by the time you actually ship, the core assumptions you had about your product are probably wrong anyway.

So let’s stop calling everything MMFs and MVPs and just get back to the business of shipping software faster and getting feedback from real customers. Don’t just take your giant backlog and call it an MVP.