MVP: how minimum is minimum?

Lean and agile philosophies place heavy emphasis on the notion of a minimum viable product (MVP) when considering bringing a new product to market or into operation. MVP is fairly commonplace: well known but not well understood, very much like the terms “lean” and “agile” are. I often hear people proclaim their teams are lean (but are not) or agile (and also are not) or that they are building a MVP (and again, are not).

When I ask how long they have been working on their MVP or how long they intend to work on it, and the answer I get is something like 9-months (to take an example), that’s not a MVP. At least not in our line of business, which is building mobile Apps. 9-months is enough time to build a full blown product! But what is the right answer? Is it 2-weeks? Is it 1-month? 2-months? Certainly it can’t be 3-months (or more)? Or can it?

Minimum viable product

There is no right or wrong answer in terms of time. Time should not be the driving factor in determining what constitutes a MVP (although it is certainly a good indicator). The time needed to release a minimum number of features and capabilities to viably prove key business and product hypotheses and assumptions varies from product to product. And therein lies the problem or challenge. “Minimum” and “viably” mean vastly different things to different business and product owners.

Furthermore, many fail to clearly identify the fundamental hypotheses and assumptions underpinning their products (e.g. “passengers will pay for the bus through the App”, “citizens will report potholes in the road through the App”, etc). Articulation of these hypotheses and assumptions helps to inform what minimum features are needed to viably prove them right or wrong. But even here, people can still succumb to being overly enamoured and proud of their “baby” and minimum often unintentionally bleeds into robustness and polish.

So, what is the answer? How do I know that I haven’t gone too far, that I have a minimum viable product? A quote from The Lean Startup conference this past November 2015 remains with me as the best answer to this question. One of the guest speakers said his definition of whether you have an MVP or not was “if you are NOT embarrassed by what is about to be released then you have gone too far”.  The notion that you have to be somewhat embarrassed, almost fearful, of releasing what you have produced is powerful in determining whether you have an MVP or not. This embarrassment factor is a very good safety valve for keeping passion, enthusiasm and pride in check allowing for earlier validation of product market fit (before it’s too late, before the investment dollars, or budget, is depleted).

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