Zen & the Lean Startup: The New Ontology of Evidenced-Based Entrepreneurship

Our main goal is to show how entrepreneurial practices, the practices of virtuous citizens, and the practices of solidarity cultivation are ultimately ground in and integrated by a crucial skill that human being in the West have had for at least 2500 years. We call the special skill that underlies entrepreneurship, citizen action, and solidarity cultivation history making.

~Spinosa, from his 1997 book “Disclosing New Worlds:  Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity”

There’s something magical about being on the Stanford campus at dawn as I was recently at Steve Blank’s Leanlaunch Pad Educators Program. It has a very peaceful presence.

As some of you know, ever since 2004 I have been an entrepreneur, and since 2008 I have produced a 3-year research project and case-study about entrepreneurial education (Carnegie-Knight Initiative), as well as producing an Exegesis showing that conceptual art is a vehicle for transformative entrepreneurial praxis, and how entrepreneurial praxis is a vehicle for transformative conceptual art (Fulbright Fellowship); not to mention that I’ve founded or co-founded 8 ventures in the last decade that are currently operating with offices on 3 continents, and in completely different industries as varied as media, biotech, and artificial intelligence.

Most recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work around LEAN STARTUP MOVEMENT , including running workshops, meetups, speaking at colleges, and serving as a lean startup advisor with Singularity University. Recently I participated in Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad Educator’s Program at Stanford and there was a nice dialogue there from participants from around the world interested in becoming a leader and organizer for startup growth using lean methodology. What united the participants was our common meta-goal of increasing the spread of innovation, enabling and empowering entrepreneurs, and engaging a common framework that can help unite communication among global entrepreneurs, as well as increasing the number and quality of startups that grow into valuable ventures and create positive impact in the World.

The purpose of this blog post is to contribute philosophically and scientifically to the evolution and trajectory of the Lean Startup Movement and framework. My 3 main points are:

1.  Lean Startup deserves a real methodology, and the use of SCRUM product development methodology applied to the customer development process should be adopted.

2.  We must take a Zenfull approach to the Lean Startup, which means developing an Integral theory and global ontology of evidence-based entrepreneurship education.

3.  As the Lean Startup approach becomes integrated into more entrepreneurship curriculums around the World, we must keep in mind the 3 key research components of any discipline:  Methodology (tools), Ontology (key assumptions), and Epistemology (nature of knowledge).

My most recent research and writing has involved approaching entrepreneurship as an artform, as a social-science, including approaching artistic praxis entrepreneurially, and approaching entrepreneurship praxis artistically. To be sure, I am a practitioner of Integral Theory, and I believe entrepreneurship is both an “art” and a “science.” And actually, I want to see the arts & sciences (as educational concepts) collapse as they did during the Renaissance period, and so this blog post is meant to get the fire started — to create a dialogue and discusses the need for an appropriate ontology of entrepreneurship, and also to highlight the recent improvement going on around Lean Startup methodology:  notably the suggestion by Dr. Francisco Palao to use SCRUM (borrowed from agile product development) as a method of managing the customer development process, and integrating with agile product development frameworks. It’s this kind of creative thinking that will help us to build a real startup methodology that can effectively guide new start-ups towards success faster.

Alas — teaching & learning the “art & science” of entrepreneurship has been a challenging pursuit up till now, because it is a practical art tied very closely with founder personalities, and before the rise of big data and the Internet — very hard to measure and analyze. Now because of digital computation, evidenced-based entrepreneurship education is starting to emerge — with Lean Startup Movement leading the way.

Critically, Lean Startup methodologies are not meant to hinder the intuition or visionary genius behind every successful new venture, but rather to empower this spirit.  Joseph Schumpeter (economist and grandfather of entrepreneurship scholarship) coined the word unternehmergeist which means, “entrepreneur spirit,” and it’s this spirit which Lean Starup Movement seeks to organize and channel into successful ventures, so that we might help to produce a global flourishing of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’d like to pose here a hypothesis, that the Lean Startup Movement is the foundation of the new globalized ontology of evidence-based entrepreneurial education; and by providing a taxonomy, a lexicon, and framework, Lean Startup helps to unify organizational resources and optimize their contribution towards the creation of the future trajectory of our species.

Firms are organisms; indeed — they are organizations. In biology, the word taxonomy is the science of observing, describing, identifying, and classifying organisms; but more than anything, taxonomy is about nomenclature and lexicon. It’s about creating the most native of common currencies among beings: communication.

I propose that the true goal and opportunity for Lean Startup Movement is to provide entrepreneurial leaders and managers a system of classification for human innovation activities — the Lexicon of Human Transformation. Lean Startup is a way to teach evidenced-based entrepreneurial education, but Lean Startup is not only a curriculum framework (desired outcomes that determine the content to be learned), but also a conceptual framework, and also a cultural framework, not to mention a way to fail less and succeed faster. To be sure, communicating and learning are the two central tenants of Lean Startup Principles.

The first tentant is communication. A key strengnth and also a potential weakness of the Lean Startup Movement is that it provides global innovators a common language and lexicon that can be used to exchange, store, and prescribe experiential entrepreneurial knowledge. In fact the Diffusion of Innovations Theory and many other theories of innovation include communication as a critical factor and research vector. Learning to learn is the true goal of self-mastery, and in-turn: creative production. This is why it’s so important to avoid using the language of Lean Startup to create just bumper-stickers, but we should instead seek to build for ourselves a common currency of social exchange around the praxis of entrepreneurship, and this includes the first step of adopting and implementing a real methodology for lean entrepreneurship as suggested recently by Lean Startup expert Dr. Francisco Palao. I admire very much his championing of the use of Scrum methodology to the customer development process in order to better systematize the methodology of new venture creation.

One of the common critiques of Lean Startup Movement is that it sometimes erodes our own fantasies about what entrepreneurship is actually about — and this is a natural tension between the Art & Science; harnessing the spirit. The Art of Starting up, the Steve Jobs fantasy, 20 year olds in hoodies, the inventer in the garage — these are all very limited expressions of successful new venture creation, yet they dominate in the press and define our conscious expectations. On the flip side of this we have the notion that all entrepreneurs fail, and that failing is a bad thing. The truth is that all great entrepreneurs have failed (sometimes on a massive scale), and it’s the overcoming of these failures and learning from these failures which guide our way on the path to greatness.

Lean Startup Movement is all about sharing best practices to help entrepreneurs and startups to creative massive value in the World, and the idea that to manage something, we must first measure it. However, just because we can better measure to manage nowadays, we should also be bold enough to develop and act upon our intuitions (our spirit), and (channel into being) our personal visions for the future. Just because we are using Lean Startup principles, tools, and processes, it doesn’t mean that we’re not providing an Innovator’s Solution. Lean Startup is not a religion, it’s just that it’s a learning framework that happens to be focused on leveraging the spirit of entrepreneurship. Lean Startup is not a prescription drug — it’s not a golden parachute, it’s a framework — an ontology — that we can use and leverage to achieve success, and to serve as a mentor for others.

This is why the grandfather of entrepreneurial research called it the “spirit” of entrepreneurship. Strengthening the methodology like Dr. Palao has proposed is critical now, but even after we strengthen the methodology, we should continue with ontological enquiry which has the potential to deepen our insight into the phenomenon of entrepreneurship, and actually this is a vein of research already expressed by Anzam in his Heideggerian approach to such an ontological enquiry here.

But herein this blog post is where I come to Zen. You see Lean Startup is not the only entrepreneurial research that’s hot right now. Beyond the recent advancement in methodology proposed by Dr. Palao, I was also recently inspired to write this blog post after coming across Zen entrepreneur so I’m truly grateful to Riz Virk and highly recommend his new book, Zen Entrepreneurship. Although Zen approaches might seem at first to differ greatly from lean startup approaches, I actually see a very close alignment, and some of that emerges in Riz’s book and I believe this to be foreshadowing a promising area for new contributions.

The knowledge required to understand, model, and maximize learning around entrepreneurship must combine both tacit and explicit knowledge. Entrepreneurial praxis is both art and science, and conceptual art is a vehicle for entrepreneurial praxis as I have argued in the past. Much of the work of lean is similar to design-thinking and human-centered-design — a core idea is taking on the perspective of the “other” and maximizing our use of the mirror-neurons we were blessed with — in Zen, being one with the Way; in lean, being one with the customer’s desires.  We need better tools and they are being invented. We need better processes and they are being optimized. Just as the great artists during the Renaissance approached their domains as art and science, so too is creative entrepreneurship the way to push humanity towards harmony and homeostasis. Approaching Lean Startup from what I might call a “Zenfull Perspective” has proven to be a rewarding pursuit from my own experience.

I agree that our current reality is a positivistic, technology-oriented era of evidenced-based entrepreneurship education, and this means that more real-time learning can happen at a larger scale than in the past. I’m extremely excited about the growing movement of entrepreneurial activity globally as well as the movement aimed at increasing the number and quality of entrepreneurial leaders around the globe.

In summary…

1.  Let’s continue building and a real methodology for Lean Startup Movement and use SCRUM to systematize the customer development process.

2.  Let’s take a Zenfull approach to entrepreneurship, and let’s combine Lean Startup Movement with mindful approaches, and continue building an integral theory of evidence-based entrepreneurship education.

3.  Let’s communicate clearly about the 3 key research components of Lean Startup Movement.

  • Methodology … to do with the tools and techniques of research
  • Ontology … to do with our assumptions about how the world is made up and the nature of things
  • Epistemology … to do with our beliefs about how one might discover knowledge about the world