What can L+D learn from the world of start-ups?

This post is written by Chat2lrn Crew Member, Holly MacDonald. Holly is the Principal Consultant for Spark + Co, and she has worked on several projects that provide training to entrepreneurs on the techniques discussed in this post. She has found inspiration from the start-up community and hopes this chat inspires others to think outside the typical L+D box.

The world of start-ups, which refers mainly to technology start-ups, may seem an odd source of inspiration for L+D professionals, but there are some interesting parallels and techniques that could be used. Those in L+D may not see it this way, but in many ways we are creating training or learning “products” and our “learners” and “clients” are our customers.

We’re going to focus on just three areas where we think start-up ideas or practices could be used in L+D.

  • There’s a drive to focus on understanding what your customer needs and who your customer actually is from Steve Blank’s Customer Development model https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLEebbiYIkI Steve is a serial entrepreneur who teaches a whole series of lectures at Stanford which preach “customer discovery”. He’s a legend in the start-up world.
  • Mapping out the relationship between what you offer to customers and how they get your product, how you make your product and how you deliver value to your customers is a core concept. Using post-its to test your thinking and question your assumptions is almost a religion in the start-up world.
  • There’s an emphasis on iterative approaches, especially through the Lean Start-up. Creating, testing and modifying are how most things are developed. You can’t sit in your office/garage/café and come up with the ideal solution to anything, you need to start with something, get feedback and apply the suggested changes.

One big idea out of the Lean Start-up has been the Minimum Viable Product or MVP . What is it? It’s a concept that suggests products or solutions should be developed to just meet the needs of your customer and no more. Instead of trying to build something fully formed, you should make sure you focus on just the minimum needs and features to meet their needs. Once you have clear indication that your product or solution will meet your customer’s need, you can use it to build out more features and invest in making your product beautiful and fully functional. It’s a concept that most find hard to do in practice, because it forces you to focus on the essence of what your product can do to address your customer’s need, when really many of us think we know the answer already.

The MVP in particular is a concept that has some great applications for those of us in L+D. After hearing Brent Schlenker on elearnchat talking about this, we wanted to explore the idea in a #chat2lrn. Brent is the Chief Learning Strategist at Litmos, many of us probably know him from the e-learning guild. He also writes a popular (and long-standing blog) at http://elearndev.blogspot.ca/

How do you see the notion of Minimum Viable Product applying to those of us in L+D?

“I was thrilled to read about MVP in The Lean Startup because there was finally a name for what I had been thinking and blogging about for many years. Much of what we used to talk about as Learning2.0 was really just the L&D industry discovering what tech start ups had discovered: the power of the minimum viable product.

However, it’s more complicated in L&D because we carry so much baggage from the past. We don’t often refer to what we deliver as a product.  And even if you are open minded enough to see that your course is a product, you may not be willing to completely change your development process to a shorter, iterative, ongoing, development cycle. It truly does require a significant shift in thinking…almost to the point of completely abandoning our traditional ISD models.

And on a side note, I think this is why non-ISD professionals, who stumble into a training role, perform better.”

More of Brent’s thoughts:

What are some examples of this?

“I’ve got 2 good examples: classroom training and eLearning.

I know we would rather not even think about designing classroom training any more, but it’s such a wonderful testing ground for content that I’ve become a big proponent of classroom training as being part of the design/development process. There is more too it than what I can cover here but I’ll give you some nuggets:

1) Let your SME expert include everything and the kitchen sink. This is blasphemy, right? No, it’s brilliant! Instead of our industry whining about this, we should be embracing it. Yes, SMEs want to include everything they know because they are passionate about the subject. So let them. Then get feedback and review it with the SME. You will be shocked to discover that he/she will discover the less desirable elements on their own. So, you work with to revise the content and then deliver it again.  And you continue doing this loop until you’ve got it nailed down to just the important nuggets.

2) Start delivering online learning content ONLINE as soon as you have it! If all that exists is a video of the CEO talking about the company at a conference then use it. Post it to your LMS and add a quiz. No, it’s not ideal, and it’s not perfect, but it’s probably GREAT content that everyone should know. With it loaded in the LMS you now have control, and access to viewing data. You could also offer achievements, badges, points, or whatever, to encourage engagement. The same could be done with any file: audio, PDF, etc”

More of Brent’s thoughts:

How do you alleviate fears from L+D practitioners about the concerns they may have about adopting a Minimum Viable Product mindset when it comes to training?

“There are plenty of valid concerns regarding minimum viable product in L&D. Companies that already have established training departments with a library of courses will probably have a difficult time adjusting to MVP. And like any other project or program change you will need to communicate it, and market it, to everyone.

Your team will also need to be constantly engaged with its products and customers. This is not something L&D is used to doing either.  We design the heck out of a course, cut it loose and then move on to the next course never seeing it again until approvals are acquired for updates may months later.

The reality is that we must provide value to the organization. MVP delivers that value consistently, iteratively, and transparently. When business leaders see progress they see value, and MVP opens up the L&D process for all to see. And that’s a good thing.”


Whether you are an instructional designer who finds inspiration in the MVP concept, or an educator who sees value in adopting a customer development mindset or a training manager/director or even freelancer who can see the importance of identifying the value that you provide to your customer, we think the world of start-ups offers lots of inspiration for L+D. We look forward to chatting about this on Thursday, June 19th.

1 thought on “What can L+D learn from the world of start-ups?

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