There’s a wrong way to “get out of the building”


In 2010 I read an article from Steve Blank about the need to get out of the building. Getting out of the building and talking to people (when developing new products) was something I'd been doing since our first startup back in the late 1990's.

So it was a bit surprising to me that this still needed to be articulated, and yet, as the Lean Startup movement has overtaken a lot of what new product developers do and talk about, I've heard the phrase “get out of the building” more than ever before.

There's only one problem.

Most people get out of the building in exactly the wrong way—so that in the end, there's virtually no difference between staying in the building and getting out of it.

Backing Up: What does it mean to get out of the building?

The whole idea is that the facts you most want, when you're developing a new product, aren't in your own building. Your own engineers won't come up with everything you need to know – after all, they're the builders of a product, not the users of it.

Steve said it best when he wrote,

The dumbest person with a fact trumps anyone with an opinion

So his charge to get out of the building was right on—it was a call to get out into the problem space (rather than spending so much time in the solution space) and collect facts.

You know what this has spawned? Tons of lunch appointments.

So ask yourself this question, especially if you're a student of startups and entrepreneurship. Are we seeing more companies bring more products to market more successfully than ever before?

I bet your observation is the same as mine—not really. There are still a set of startups that are having great success (regardless of how they enter the market or design their products). And there are still a ton of startups that fail early, quickly, and often.

But shouldn't we see more success with so much “out of the building” talk and activity?

Not if you're making some critical mistakes.

Getting out of the building incorrectly.

One method people use, the one you see most often, is an informational interview. This is when I ask you to lunch and invite you to share with me your issues. But I'm often so excited about my prospective product I spend more time telling you about it than listening.

If you want to develop a new product, talk less. Listen more.

In fact, don't share what you're trying to produce. You'll find out a lot more about you and your prospects assumptions when you share a lot less and let them assume and talk about what they think you're building.

I once told a client we were going to integrate with their utility company. I was talking about meter readings. They assumed I was talking about billing. It turns out they had issues I'd never heard of—and hadn't imagined.

Beware of Confirmation Bias

Well, when you interview someone, are you aware of confirmation bias? How you ask a question can impact the answer you get. If you ask, “Don't you hate it when…” you're likely to get a different response than when you start with, “tell me about the last time you tried to..”

I was recently on a call talking about the scheduling of property inspections—for a new product we're designing. I almost shared the core frustration we assumed we were “fighting against” in our new design. But I stopped short of it and asked the question—”what frustrates you most?”

This often tells me two things – what's important and how important it is. Turns out by shutting up, we heard of a completely different set of problems (related to group scheduling) than we would have ever guessed.

Of course, I could have simply stated that we were going to solve scheduling issues, and listened for their approval, even if I was interpreting it incorrectly. Only later would I have found out that we were talking about two different issues.

Want to know another issue with informational interviews?

It's easy to interview someone. To collect tons of anecdotal evidence to support your new product development effort. But it can mean nothing if you've interviewed the wrong person.

I once interviewed the head of an automotive dealership. I heard all sorts of details and collected data about his operations. Then, because I was with someone who steered me to the right person (that I didn't even know existed), I discovered massive amounts of different data—and data that really mattered.

Most of us have experienced the dissonance between the buyer and the user of enterprise software. They often don't resemble each other at all. Well, if you're interviewing a buyer, beware that their stories may bear zero resemblance to what a user deals with.

Here's the truth

I don't trust informational interviews nearly as much as I did ten or fifteen years ago. I've learned that I can end up introducing the potential for observer bias. I can interview the wrong person. Tip my hand and cause them to tell me what I want. In essence, from a scientific perspective, I can cause my research to be invalid pretty easily.

Instead, I suggest a more incarnational approach. That term, “incarnational” is one that comes from my pastoral days. It revolves around the concept of God living among people.

But I find that, regardless of your religious affiliation or lack thereof, the term makes sense when it comes to “getting out of the building.”

See, if I want to know what pain you're having, I can't count on you to share it. I have to see it for myself. I have to participate and let the experience impact me. To that end I've spend days reviewing telecom bills (that sucked), and sat with folks in car dealerships and real estate offices (not as bad). I once did all the manual scheduling of corporate training, just so I could build an effective automated system.

Getting out of the building should really be called something else

I think if we, the folks involved in new product development, were to be given a chance to rename this dynamic, we'd call it the very opposite of “getting out of the building.”

Instead, we'd call it, “getting into the building” under the presumption that our clients are in the building and we need to go where they are.

When I saw this video, even though it's a beer commercial and I can't recall the last time I was inspired by a beer commercial, I was inspired to write this post. Because it's exactly the kind of incarnational approach that I'm talking about.

I won't spoil it. Watch it. I'll share my last observation after you've seen it.

If we wanted to build a better wheelchair for basketball players, what do you think would be the more effective way to get our information?

Do you think a few meals would give us the info we'd need? Do you think asking the right questions would do it? Or would we need to be like these friends, sitting, using and even falling in these chairs?

There is, in fact, a wrong way to get out of the building. Let's not do it.

Instead, let's step into the problem space and marinate in it.