Conducting experiments and building capacity at the intersection of culture and technology.

How-to article: adapting lean methodology to the arts

Makers and creators need business skills to succeed: lean methodology is a great place to start

Most independent artists and creative innovators are de-facto small business owners. They provide a product or service, count receipts, pay bills, do taxes, and – if lucky – earn a living.

That doesn’t mean that business-style thinking is an easy fit for the right-brained. As creatives, we want to spend our time on our craft. Fussing around with GST numbers, marketing plans, and tax returns? Not so much.

But not all business matters are dry, dull or foreign to creative minds – enter the concept of lean start-up methodology. Intuitive and improvisational at its core, lean is a natural fit for creatives. It’s also one of the most powerful business concepts you can know, full stop.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the key tools in the lean toolkit. We’ll also take a look at how each can work in the context of a creative enterprise or artistic career.

The lean practitioner turns the traditional approach to innovation inside out. She launches a working draft of her idea right out of the gate, in full view of the world. Then she improves it over time, bit by bit, in response to feedback and lessons learned.

Let’s take a look at what the process entails.

Minimum Viable Product

In the start-up context, lean methodology begins with the creation of a minimum viable product (MVP). The MVP is a bare-bones version of your idea, just good enough to please potential early adopters.

The MVP approach assumes that nobody ever gets things right on the first try. So it’s better to pull the band-aid off and move immediately on to your second, third and subsequent tries. It’s sometimes said that if you’re not at least a little embarrassed by your MVP then you’re not doing it right.

Your MVP could be a rough demo of a song. It could be the outlines of a comedy routine. Or a slapped-together prototype of a sexy new ukulele/saxophone hybrid musical instrument. It could be a dance company’s “theatre space” – otherwise known as the director’s backyard. Whatever its form, your MVP should provide your audience with a visceral experience.

Build-Measure-Learn

You have your minimum viable product in hand. Now it’s time to release it out into the wild to test it on an audience and evolve it in response to how people respond. Work on your thing, ask for feedback, and make further improvements in response, over and over again.

Whether they realize it or not, stand-up comedians are masters of build-measure-learn. They cook up new material, weave it into their sets, and gauge how it lands, show after show. They’ll also often riff and improvise on and around such material, playing off the crowd’s energy and surfacing unexpected themes and ideas in the process. These, in turn, are fodder for continuous improvement.

An MVP need not be the “thing itself.” The Jazz Room, an independent music venue in Waterloo, Ontario, used a concert poster as its MVP. The poster, stylish and professional in appearance, advertised an imaginary upcoming season of performances. The founders schlepped it around, collected feedback, and tweaked their ideas in response, gradually zeroing in on their ideal format. Along the way, several people committed to buying tickets based on the idea alone.

AB testing

An AB test is an experiment in which two variations of a product or feature are shown to different sets of users. Statistical analysis is then used to look at which version people liked better. AB tests aren’t meant to replace qualitative decision making. Instead, they help us to gather facts before making our own choices.

AB testing is rampant on the web. After all, it’s child’s play for a web developer to test two versions of the same button and see which one more people click on. Arts organizations that sell products or tickets online can use such tests improve their sales.

The technique is also useful beyond the confines of web pages. A band, for example, might perform contrasting versions of a new song at back-to-back shows. How did the audience’s reaction to the two versions differ? What are the strengths/weaknesses of each? Did the unplugged version win out over the death metal take, at least in a given context?

In a strict AB test, it’s important to keep variables other than the one you’re testing consistent, to avoiding muddying your data. That said, the spirit of comparison can inform more abstract choices, too. Have two competing ideas, for example, and want to decide which one to focus on first? Try working on both in parallel and watch your progress to see which one catches fire first.

Pivot

A pivot is a structured course correction towards a MVP. It’s what happens when you realize that your original idea isn’t going to fly.

Picture an author who is struggling with a new novel that isn’t hanging together. She’s shown the manuscript to various people, who agree the story has problems. But several have also commented on that one minor character who makes them laugh out loud. Inspired, the author starts a new story told from this character’s point of view.

The trick with pivoting is to know when to do it. If we pivoted every time we hit a roadblock, our working lives would be a never-ending pivot to nowhere. Sometime you need to stay the course.

Business Model Canvas

External links:
Standard business model canvas
Social business model canvas

The business model canvas is a one-page template for summarizing everything you’ve been doing to move your initiative forward.

The canvas for a project is designed to evolve over time. You start by noting down your hypothetical plans for each aspect of your business. Then you go out and test these assumptions, updating the canvas as you go.

Imagine that you are developing a documentary film about the cannabis industry. In the “key partners” category, you might list a local film festival where you hope to premiere the film. To test this idea, you reach out to the festival organizers, but learn that they already have similar films lined up. So you scratch them off your canvas and start looking at other nearby festivals. As you work through such questions and answers, the canvas helps you to keep a handle on the shape and scope of your effort.

Next steps

As we’ve said, the purpose of lean methodology is to help you to find a valid model for your project. Sooner or later, if you’re lucky, you will assemble a strong case that your model is sound and has good odds of success.

What you’re looking for is buzz. At least some of the people you’ve contacted should be true believers, eager to join in the excitement. You yourself should have a feeling in your gut that you’re onto something.

At this point, you can continue to advance your scheme in an incremental fashion. OR you can move into a more aggressive phase of development: referred to as scaling.

Sometimes you’ll need an infusion of support to jump a major hurdle. Remember that backyard theatre company? They’ll need a detailed plan and the support of outside investors if they want to build a permanent space. In other words, they’ll need to scale.

Final thoughts

We are not suggesting that lean methodology is a foolproof path to glory. Every approach has its pitfalls and exceptions. Here are a few to bear in mind when using lean in a creative context:

  • Use discretion when sharing still-rough work. You don’t want to set yourself up as a target for trolls.
  • Avoid mere crowd-pleasing. Don’t blindly follow the scattered whims of every casual supporter.
  • Don’t let the process burn you out. Gathering feedback is draining work, and often a little input goes a long way.

Used well, lean methodology can give artists, makers and other creatives a jump start on the road to success. After all, if anyone has the requisite skills to use this approach – making things, improvising, iterating, connecting with an audience – it’s you guys.