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How to Deconstruct Your Projects Into Truly Minimum Viable Products

For some reason you haven’t shipped that project yet. I haven’t either. We make excuses, even as we daydream about the idea. We fool ourselves with a future reality even as we procrastinate.

We all have projects we want to complete. Ideas we want to build out. Stories or articles or podcasts or courses we want to publish successfully.

And they’re not getting finished.

It doesn’t happen because you’re lazy or because you’re incompetent or because you’re not good enough. None of that is true.

You’re not procrastinating because you’re incapable of doing the work. You are capable. You can do this work. However, there’s a villain in this story you’re not accounting for.

There’s a million reasons why we give up on a project. In my story, as I look back over the landscape of multifarious carcasses, the cadavers of once hopeful projects, from my current vantage point with at least a few successful projects under my belt, I see the villain responsible for so much waste and debris.

It didn’t quite make sense until I was swirling around in the world of the Lean Startup. You’ve probably heard the cult-like code words of this crew. Words like “MVP”, “Customer Development,” “Pivot,” and “Steve Blank.”

This, for me, was an extremely confusing world. Frankly, I felt like an idiot, like a newby. Someone uses this word or that word with no explanation, and, like an inside joke I wasn’t included in, I’d watch heads nod in agreement… I didn’t get these jokes.

I stuck with it, though. There was something clearly useful in these concepts. In time, as I kept trying to get the joke and understand the theories, I started making the translations:

  • Customer Development: researching the customers, talking with them, getting out of the office and off the whiteboard and into the real world to hear words from real people who might one day buy my product… if I correctly understood their desires and needs. In Lean Startup customers develop founders, not the other way around.
  • MVP: stands for “Minimum Viable Product,” the smallest thing we could put out into the world about this idea to test whether or not customers could want it. Instead of a working project, maybe just a sales page. Instead of a sales page, maybe just an adwords campaign to test different offerings, different wordings. The MVP is whatever smallest, quickest thing we could honestly test an idea with.

It started sinking in, this sequence of developing products. I started to see the wisdom of it.

A lot of my interest focused on the MVP. It seemed easy enough, but it was always hard for me to come up with my own ideas. I’d hear others tell their stories, like this one from an Italian entrepreneur, Peldi Guilizzoni of Balsamiq.

“…when I started I tried to pick the smallest possible problem I could tackle: adding a Wireframing plugin to Atlassian Confluence seemed to be small enough.”

Instead of making a full on web app or desktop version of the software, he made a smaller utility that existed only within another, much larger, piece of software.

Interestingly, the piéce de rèsistance for my MVP design came in a quote from the same Italian entrepreneur (in this Reddit AMA):

“…complexity creeps in all the time: every time we do a wireframe, I have trained myself to think of it as “version 3” of whatever we’re designing. That’s how the brain works, you can’t just mock up the MVP, the mind races and you get excited and end up adding way too much for a v1. So we wireframe v3, then scale it back, and then we do again, and then we ship that.”

There is a massive trick here. It deconstructs the villain.

Every idea you put on paper, every mockup you sketch, every concept for a business you outline on a napkin… that’s version 3.

Go through that idea/sketch/outline and simplify it one level.

Then, do it again, simplifying it another level. This is the one you should launch.

Why is this so important? As he says himself, “that’s how the brain works […], the mind races and you get excited and end up adding way too much for v1.”

If you look at the carcasses of your failed projects, you probably see ideas way over-engineered, much too thoroughly thought through. You probably see a younger you talking excitedly about “what this thing could be!” You can probably replay the memory like a movie, watching the main character, you, biting deeper and deeper into what so clearly is already far too much for her to chew on.

There is some spiritual balance here between what you bite off and what you can chew. Our brain can bite off so much more than we’re capable of chewing.

If you bite off too much you’ll choke. If your brain runs amuck connecting all the dots, designing all the features, sketching out the minutia of the idea, the project will become another carcass.

But I get so damn excited when a new idea hits! It’s energizing. It reminds me of the moment in Lord of the Rings when Galadriel, the most elegant and wise Elf in Middle-earth, learns that Frodo has the ring and transforms into a terrifying rage monster.

Galadriel changes

This transformation happens immediately when my brain gets what feels like a good idea. Blood pumps, synapses fire, dopamine and cortisol rage through my body causing a heightened sense of focus and intensity. Just like how our ancient ancestors’ bodies behaved when they discovered a predator near their camp.

Are you catching what the villain is? What our brain does naturally, the way it takes us from A to Z in a fraction of a second, how it connects the dots, sees patterns, takes things further and further — all that with a healthy mix of, “HOLY SHIT I’M GONNA BE SUCH A BIG DEAL!” thrown in for good measure — is a great superpower of our biology and a great killer of projects.

Our brain’s superpower is our villain.

Earlier this year we had a nightmare project experience. We had an idea to overhaul the Fizzle course library and dashboard, giving business builders a clear sense of where they were on their learning path. I made sketches, Caleb made outlines, Corbett made flow charts… it was ready to go, we just needed to dive in.

The initial planning excitement wore off, interrupted by some urgent emails, a couple podcast recordings, a few articles to write, some support email triage… and the project just sat there. 1 month, it started growing mold. 2 months, I didn’t even see the flowchart I printed and taped to the wall by my desk. 3 months, none of us brought it up. 4 months, on a quarterly call we reviewed ongoing project… “yea, we really should get to work on that thing.” 5 months, nothing.

The designs were good, the outline clear, the flowchart leakproof, but we never shipped it. This is our livelihood. Our ability to ship the projects we deem important is our capacity for success. When we flunk on this it doesn’t just feel kinda shitty, it can cost us our product, our audience, our business.

Eventually we took Peldi’s advice to heart, simplified the idea 2x and shipped the new dashboard and paths feature. The community loved it. Fizzlers are taking their projects further because of it.

Like us, you will choke when you bite off more than you can chew. But your brain is exceptionally adept at designing massive bites. So you need a trick to lower the resolution of your projects.

This simple idea from Peldi does the trick. It makes room for the brain to do its thing, anticipating we will over-design everything… and then providing this straightforward path to a simplified project: un-design it 2x.

When we’re focused on a chewable chunk, we’re forced into defining a realistic final outcome for the project, making plain and clear the beginning, middle and end.

This is called “clarity.” In the world you and I inhabit, the one where we live and die by the success of our projects — the one where we can never fully validate the success of any project beforehand — clarity is critical to shipping, getting our ideas out the door and into the real world of our customers to discover if this idea will work or not.

This is the lore and the lesson of the MVP, the small, testable thing that shows us whether an idea might work or not. And this tip from Peldi is dynamite for us explorers of ideas and builders of things.

As you end this year and start planning for the next, lets get to clarity on these projects. Try out Peldi’s trick, un-design your plans 2x and commit to getting one of these damn things out the door alive!

but that only counts as one

Photo via Mykl Roventine

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