Lean Innovation Educators Summit
The Godfather of Lean Startup, Steve Blank, and his Lean Launch Pad team held their third Lean Innovation Educators Summit on December 16th. There were over a thousand registrants, 220 institutions and 65 countries represented. These educators are global, primarily from the U. S., and practitioners of evidenced-based startup planning using Steve’s customer development process. Timing was to build community and resiliency in these challenging times. While two prior summits shared best practices and discussed tools to put to work, this gathering was meant to explore how best to succeed in the “new normal” and how to build back better both main street and high tech.
The format was the same as used in earlier summits, key speakers, a keynote interview, and twenty breakout sessions to engage in peer-to-peer sharing. As a participant, I can say it was the best we’ve had yet. As example the “big idea” from Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s keynote was a new, fourth purpose to strategic university planning. To existing research, education, and public service, Bollinger has added a fourth purpose of direct action to impact a better world. The concept is to partner universities with other major institutions to use science and tech to solve major problems. A major one is global climate change.
He feels universities have become too remote, too isolated from the real world, and both they and society would benefit from applied academic knowledge. Part of the process aligns university activities with problems facing society through use of scholarships and other tools to promote direct action. Besides the climate crisis and clean energy, there is public health front and center now with the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights, marine conservation, and social economic development. The United Nations has set 17 goals to achieve by 2030 adding food security, good health (involving clean water and sanitation), primary education, gender equality, and the global environment. In words of Steve Blank, Bollinger’s initiative is a “Big Idea”.
Because the COVID economy dramatically changed business for entrepreneurs, there were new ideas to share and many problems to brainstorm. While high tech has sustained and grown during the pandemic, Main Street businesses have contracted or shut down. Part of the reason for this Lean Innovation Educators Summit was to help small business and communities recover. The lean launch model uses a business model canvas to “iterate” and “pivot” interacting with customers who have changed needs and demands. Both Pete Newell and Steve Weinstein of BMNT (innovation with engineering students at universities), spoke. Their “Begin Morning Nautical Twilight” (BMNT) organization (Army term) combines bright university students with general grade officers to solve/improve national defense projects. The basic course, Hacking for Defense or H4D was featured in Entrepreneur www.entrepreneur.com/article/354342. A sister company, Common Mission, uses a network of international entrepreneurs to create solutions to “the critical challenges of our time from national security to natural disasters”.
One cannot predict topics nor inventive ideas might emerge from the breakout sessions. A sampling from sessions this year include pre-university training, pros and cons of virtual education (overall it improves mentoring and increases customer development), training prisoners in unfilled jobs, and a bust of the myth distance learning does not work. While jelling might take longer, the social diversity is broader owing to global students. Diversified inputs from 65 countries and ideas from So. Africa, Germany, Britain, Spain and Australia made for a rich, “crazy quilt” to quote Dr. Saras Sarasvathy. Virtual education has required change; more entertainment to keep attention spans, and collaboration has been greatly expanded. Phil Weilerstein, Venture Well, gave the example of African students participating in an Australian lean launch class.
Zoom has allowed students to interact with funders/VCs, created new solutions to internet access (e.g., colleges boosting wifi into parking lots for underserved communities), enabled mentors and investors to participate, seemed to bring out “wallflowers” more (via chat), and made finding guest speakers easier. Virtual also re-designed classes increasing the need for planning, started the practice of video lectures ahead of class to give breakrooms and homework discussion more time, and, most importantly, made customer development more impactful. Quantity and quality of questioning has escalated.
The breakout groups pointed out the role for a good MVP (minimal value product) is more important (needs to be further along), it is meaningful to include more Main Street and less Tech, good to role reverse (students ask questions of teachers), and there is a demand for translations overseas. One interesting request was for a modified version of the Lean Launch for use at SBDCs (Small Business Development Centers) where classes are shorter, broader based, and currently traditional business planning vs. startup.
Bob Dorf, who co-wrote the Startup Owners Manual with Steve, said he would like to see the group tackle problems accelerated by COVID-19 like homelessness, strive for more diversity in founders (recruit girls), offered the University of Buckingham UK requirement to build a startup to graduate, and gave the example of Ryerson University (Toronto) opening their incubator to everyone (not just students). By far Dorf’s most personal comment to this writer was to keep in mind when teaching entrepreneurship, we are teaching life skills. My article in this winter’s NACCE Community College Magazine (below) deals with the importance of entrepreneurship now more than ever. Trends underway before the pandemic have been accelerated by COVID-19, chiefly automation of labor (more artificial intelligence of white collar work) and expansion of the Gig Economy as large corporations move to save costs with more independent contractors. Joblessness has become a large problem, and is only going to get worse. Entrepreneurship can be a mass solution and needs to be taught at every school and college and used extensively in adult re-skilling programs. Lean launch has made teaching and learning entrepreneurship possible for anyone. People need only desire (via Dr. Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism) to add resilience to overcome challenges during the process.