No one knows the right answer: the uncomfortable truth about running lean


Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference had dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who were eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Wes Kao, who is the Director of Seth Godin’s altMBA. Wes gave a talk on The Hidden Burden of Iteration at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. 


The truth is that I was attracted to the lean movement because it felt safe. Lean is a relentless march toward the right answer, an evolving process where we go from safe to safest, from new to tested to successful. Sign me up.

It turns out, though, that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lean is in our blood

Running lean is a core part of our approach at the altMBA. We don’t even call it lean—we just call it normal.

I’m always keeping an eye out for feedback from students. I look for patterns and pattern breaks, then follow the trail to see if the insight warrants a change. If it makes sense to roll something out while the workshop is in session, we’ll do it.

Along the way of launching and iterating, I’ve learned a few things. The most important is this: no one has the right answer.

There might not even be a right answer. If you’re launching at the pace that we do, or if you want to, internalizing this concept might help you as it helped me.

No one knows the right answer, but you still have to make decisions.

Lean is about iteration. Iteration is about change. Change brings uncertainty, which generates anxiety.

As humans, we’re wired to think that change is a threat. We want to avoid it at all costs. We can grow to live with change, but it doesn’t come naturally: it requires the extra step of convincing ourselves that it’s okay.

Despite all this, you have to make decisions in the face of ambiguity. Decisions drive a project forward.

This means that in order to circumvent your own brain’s reluctance to embrace change, you have to get good at spotting your own fear when it comes up.

If this doesn’t work, everything could come crashing down.

What we have now isn’t so bad…

Is what I’m about to do a really bad idea?

You have to notice when you’re making excuses, and admit to yourself that they are in fact excuses.

If you’re feeling totally safe all the time, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Choosing to iterate means inviting uncertainty into your life. It’s a choice you have to make every hour of every day. This is something I grapple with daily, and it might sound familiar to you if you work on projects that might not work.

What I hope you leave here with is this: it’s normal to feel uncertain and afraid. We waste energy thinking about whether we’re supposed to be feeling this way, but this is exactly how you’re supposed to feel.

If this doesn’t seem like something you want to live with, then maybe lean isn’t for you. That’s entirely okay too, so own it and recognize the choice you’re making.

Think of discomfort as the norm, not the exception. It will always be hard.

Anxiety comes from expecting one thing, but getting another.

We expect a smooth path, but instead the road is punctuated with blips and fire drills. It’s like trying to keep a bunch of frogs from jumping out of a bowl and to stay in one place.

You might be thinking, “How many times do I have to embrace change for it to feel easy? When will I feel safe and certain again?”

The tension will always be there. Operating in an agile way means that you are not only living with tension, but inviting it with each step forward that you take.

Let’s say it out loud now: your work is never going to be completely done. To stay ahead of the curve, you will always have to push to try something new. It might never feel easier.

There will be an ongoing urge to repeat what you did before, even if you only did it once.

There’s implied safety in doing something the way you did it last time, or copying a competitor completely. The historical evidence of something having worked in the past makes you want to do it again because it feels “proven.” There’s less of a chance it could go wrong.

There is nothing wrong with repeating what works. You just have to be aware when you’re doing it because you’re scared of a new thing, or because what you’re doing now really is the best way.

You will want to pull back to an imagined place of certainty. You must resist this urge if you want to continue to iterate and improve.

This all sounds terrible. Why would anyone choose to invite anxiety into their lives?

The kind of person and organization who commits to doing the hard part has a main competitive advantage: not everyone is willing to make hard decisions.

Not everyone can or wants to deal with uncertainty. By choosing to run lean and to handle the anxiety that comes hand-in-hand with lean, you’re able to move faster than your competitors.

If you can stomach the anxiety, you can reap the benefits of discovering what works and what doesn’t faster than your competitors do. You can switch strategies before dumping a ton of resources down a path when you should have iterated sooner. You can spot opportunities and act on them–you stay one step ahead.

So if you’re choosing to do lean, then understand that the hidden burden of iteration is anxiety. Stop beating yourself up for feeling anxious. It’s normal, it’s okay, and it means that you’re on the right track.