Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is such a nice idea. Let’s build something that is as small as possible and at the same time viable, which translates to “provides value and thus make sense to build it.” Two adjectives in a mix where one counterbalances the other and vice versa.
Since I currently run a web software house I hear the term MVP very frequently. Or to be precise I hear the term MVP being abused very frequently. On some occasion the viable part would be ignored. Much more frequently though the way people understand MVP has virtually nothing to do with the minimal part.
During the early discussions about products our potential clients want to build I would typically ask about a business case behind a project or an app. It’s not about what it is that someone wants to build. It’s about why it is worth building that thing in the first place.
Note, I’m not judgmental. We contributed to better or worse ideas but I don’t reserve the right to know what’s worth building and what’s not. In fact, my questions have a very different purpose. What I want to achieve is to learn the value behind the app so that we can have a meaningful discussion about stuff in a backlog.
Now, this is the part where typically I’d really like to have people read Lean Startup before they are even allowed to talk to any software shop about building their product. And then, read it once again to understand what they are reading in depth.
The reason is that most of the time I can instantly come up with a batch of work that is one third, one fifth or one tenth of what was labelled an Minimal Viable Product by a potential client and it would still validate a business hypothesis behind a product. It likely means that with a bit of effort and better understanding of the context our clients would be able to cut it down way further than that. It may mean that they’d be even able to validate the basic idea without writing any software at all.
These so called “MVPs” wouldn’t recognize a real Minimal Viable Product even if it kicked them in the butt.
A sad part is that most of the time discussion around what really is minimal is futile. While I can provide my insight and encourage to learn more about the topic an argument often boils down to “we really need to build it all because, well, we don’t believe anything short of that would work.”
The long story short, I believe that MVP is in the top 5 most abused terms in our industry. By now referring to MVP is mostly meaningless unless you ask a series of questions to understand what one means by that. We could have skipped he MVP part, have the same discussion and we’d save a little bit of time.
That’s why I believe we need another frame for discussing what the initial increment of a product is.
What I caught myself on a number of times was proposing our clients a different constraint. Let’s step aside from discussing what is minimal and what is viable. Let’s figure out which features will be the part of the product in every single, even most crazy, scenario that we can think of. And I really mean every single one of them.
What I try to achieve with this discussion is to find the set of features that is a common denominator for all the options of building the product. There’s always something like that. A core process that the app support. A basic idea that the app is built upon. An ultimate issue that the app attempts to solve.
What I don’t expect is to see the full solution, even the most basic one. It would be an MVP on its own and we’d be back to the square one. What I expect is just a bunch of bits and pieces that are required to eventually build the app.
It is neither minimal nor viable.
It is indispensable though.
There are a couple of reasons to do that. The first one is that it reframes how both parties, the client and us, think of a product. We don’t try to settle on what is viable and what is minimal. We simply go with something that we know will be useful.
The other one is that it addresses the huge challenge of building a relationship. In fact this part goes really deep. It typically starts with a question how much building something would take. Some sort of an estimate. Well, it’s another thread. I’m not fundamentally against the estimates and see value in understanding generally how much something would take. At the same time I acknowledge that humans are simply not well equipped to estimate as we can’t learn to assess stuff in abstract measures. At the end of the day though, the smaller the batch size of work the smaller the potential risk and the smaller the estimation mistake.
In other words the smaller the initial batch of work the easier it is to start working.
It is true from another perspective as well. The most important modifiers of the cost of building a product in a client-vendor scenario isn’t anything related to the product itself. It is the quality of collaboration. It’s about both parties feeling like they’re the part of the same team. It’s about short feedback loops. It’s about working together toward the goal.
Unless it is about lack of transparency, distrust, and exploiting the other party.
The tricky part here is that you don’t know where at this spectrum you are until you start working. Building the smallest possible batch of work together pretty much gives you all the knowledge you needed. Seriously, you don’t need more than just few weeks to get a good feeling where collaboration part is going.
That’s why this the idea of Minimal Indispensable Feature Set is so useful whenever more than a single party is involved in building a product.
Minimal Indispensable Feature Set is perfectly aligned with building an MVP. In fact it is a subset of an MVP. At the same time it addresses the part of the setup that goes way beyond simply defining of what product is.
We live in a world where more and more frequently the building part is outsourced to another party. Getting the collaboration right at least as critical as getting the product idea right.