‘Lean Startup’ Revolution Sweeps Through Business Schools

U.S. Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) in the Lean LaunchPad class at Haas - Ethan Baron photo

U.S. Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) in the Lean LaunchPad class at Haas – Ethan Baron photo

Engel suggests that instead of selling the device with only the attached scent-carrying doll, that a range of dolls could be sold. Blank asks if the product could be made to dispense only the company’s packaged treats. “This is a big idea for all the teams, trying to figure out how to increase your lifetime value,” Blank tells the class. “What else . . . can you sell them over time? Let me turn this into an explicit ask: you guys are doing so good I’d like you to think about what are some additional things that could extend lifetime offering. We’d like you to see us, and raise us one. We’re impressed.”

On the class dashboard, ratings by professors and peers for each presentation appear in bar graph form. “What’s interesting is the slope, not so much the absolute – whether they’re improving,” Engel says.

While Blank is largely credited with pioneering the lean startup pedagogy, the methodology’s origins go back to the ‘90s, with the 1995 publication of Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath’s Harvard Business Review article on “discovery-driven planning,” and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma.


“We took a lot of disjointed practices and integrated them into a coherent methodology,” McGrath, who teaches strategy and innovation at Columbia, tells Poets&Quants. “We did a lot of research into how successful entrepreneurs think. What we began to observe is that the companies were making the same mistakes over and over again . . . planning uncertain new ventures with the same processes for planning existing businesses.”

Moving toward certainties requires discovery – going out to talk to prospective customers and anyone else who might be required to get the product made, shipped, and sold.

Blank, in 2003, published his book Four Steps to the Epiphany, widely considered the kick-off to the lean startup movement. In 2009, John Mullins’ and Randy Komisar’s book Getting to Plan B added momentum to the ideas behind lean startup. Around the same time, entrepreneur Alexander Osterwalder invented the business model canvas.

Then, Eric Ries, a student in Blank’s first Customer Development class at Haas, brought customer development together with “agile development” and called the technique “The Lean Startup” – title of Ries’ best-selling 2011 book that popularized the method worldwide.


The lean startup methodology has gained “a lot of traction” in B-school curricula, but a fair amount of what’s still taught hails back to a slower-paced business era, McGrath says. “We still have an awful lot of stuff in business schools that goes back to the ‘60s, ’70s, and ‘80s, when life was a lot more stable. To rip all that out and start over again is kind of challenging,” McGrath says. “Where we get a huge amount of resistance is the finance folks. It’s squishy stuff. You can’t put it in a spreadsheet and get the right answer.”

Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath - Wikimedia Commons photo

Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath – Wikimedia Commons photo

Similar opposition to lean methodologies may arise in startups, McGrath says. “Many times things really bog down when you start getting the CFOs involved,” she says.

To be sure, the bones of the lean startup methodology have been taught in business schools for upwards of a decade. “We didn’t call it lean startup, but we’ve been doing this for almost 20 years in our New Venture Challenge: it’s the process of iterating and pivoting,” says Ellen Rudnick, executive director of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “We would tell our students, ‘Do not sit at your computer and create a business plan that’s kind of pie in the sky.’” Students have been instructed to “street test” their venture ideas, covering everything from pricing to supply chain to distribution, Rudnick says. “We have been really focusing on getting out there to talk to people.”


The fact that lean startup methodology has so rapidly become a central teaching in B-school entrepreneurship programs comes down to Blank’s work, Eisenmann says. Eisenmann had been closely following the work of Blank and Ries, and in 2011, Eisenmann created and delivered a new elective course at HBS, Launching Technology Ventures. “I’d been exposed to Steve and Eric Ries’ ideas and recognized they were really powerful for entrepreneurs, and resolved to bring them into the classroom,” Eisenmann says. “The two of them together I think building off each other’s ideas have brought a lot of discipline to this process.”

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