Before “Lean Startups” there was “Probe and Learn”

I have written about Lean Startups, both the phenomena and the writings of Eric Ries and Steven G. Blank in a recent article and will continue to do so. I would suggest that anyone interested in innovation and entrepreneurship read Ries’s blog and consider his upcoming book (links to both are at the end of this article.)

In his articles Eric Ries describes how web entrepreneurs launch “Lean Startups.” He focuses on the need for a new style of management and metrics to conduct careful experiments on “minimum viable products.” Bringing radical or discontinuous innovations to market can be described as:

  • Build a “minimum viable product” to take to market as a controlled experiment
  • Measure results
  • Learn
  • Iterate with followup experiments

This experimental, iterative process is ideal to bring discontinuous products to the market. Most examples Ries cites are web-based services or software but he asserts in several articles that the process can be applied elsewhere.

TWENTY years ago…

Gary Lynn published his dissertation in 1993. He had collected data from manufacturers of high-tech business and medical devices that had or were bringing a discontinuous new product to market. He found that the process was vastly different from incremental product innovations that depended on traditional marketing research. He and his co-authors found a process they called Probe and Learn defined as:

  • Probe – bring an “immature” product to market as a controlled experiment
  • [carefully study the market results]
  • Learn
  • Iterate with new experiments 

Do you feel you have seen the “probe and learn” process before? I certainly do!! (Of course both also strongly resemble Lean improvement, E.W. Deming’s change model, and the scientific method…)

It seems fair that Gary Lynn and his co-authors get credit for the process that they discovered, but even more importantly for our purposes it is useful to note that he found the process by studying goods-producers. Therefore iterative “Build-Measure-Learn” using “minimum viable products”, or iterative “Probe and Learn” using “immature products” are indeed generalizable far beyond the world of internet services and software.

In a future article I will look at the subtle differences between Probe and Learn and methods of Lean Startups and the contribution that Ries and Blank are making beyond the Probe and Learn model.

For more information I recommend:

This entry was posted in Co-creation or User collaboration, Customer Research Methods, effectuation, entrepreneurship, experiential innovation, Experiment, Slow Burn Entrepreneurship, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Before “Lean Startups” there was “Probe and Learn”

  1. Thanks for bringing these insights to light. Your discussion focuses on product innovation but there is a parallel to innovating business practices to adapt and thrive in fast-changing, uncertain and increasingly complex markets – today!

    In 1984 Richard Daft and Karl Wieck wrote a paper titled “Toward a Model of Organizations as Interpretation Systems.” In essence they contrasted 4 ways that people and organizations gather, interpret incoming information about the business climate. The most adaptive they called “enacting” – experimentation, testing, coercion, invent, environment. Learn by Doing.

    Written in 1984 but extremely applicable to today.

  2. gschirr says:

    Thanks I will take a look at the paper. I believe in the experiential organizational learning approaches to innovation. In my post I was pointing out that new concepts like “lean startups” and “effectuation” were discussed in product innovation literature years ago: which actually strengthens the concepts.

    BTW for any readers, the 1984 paper is available online at

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