Over the last twelve years I’ve had the honor to go through all the steps of academic education. I attended a Greek University, got my Bachelor’s degree and then went on to study for my M.Sc and, finally, a Ph.D. It has been a magical journey, to say the least. But, let’s see how the Lean Startup approach is related to all this.
From learning, to being productive
Since last year, I’ve taken part in a completely different process. I’ve become a member of the Greek Startup ecosystem, as the leader of a software product team. And we’re developing a SaaS platform, called sciencetraining.io.
But, wait a minute! What “completely different” process? There’s no way in heaven that’s true! It is, undoubtedly, one and the same process. I’m certain of it!
Parts of the same process
I was highly driven to get my Ph.D; I’m highly driven to lead a great team to success, building a thriving business around our platform. The most important reason why I published a Ph.D. dissertation, as well as putting together a startup company, is the value that these efforts would, or will offer society; humanity, even.
In both cases, you need an idea and a plan. After you’ve put together an exceptional team you’ll be on your way. Building a startup will also require some financing. “Uncertainty” is more of the same, in both cases. Much needed soft skills such as leadership, team building, coordination, etc are also the same. Pitches and meetings with stakeholders or with your supervising professor are essential, in both scenarios.
As for the proverbial product-market fit? Consider a worst-case scenario, where you’ve built a product no one needs. The sentiment resembles the one you’ll get when publishing big data and deep science papers that no one cares about.
Can you spot the difference?
Ph.D. research looks like old-fashioned, huge business plans. Meticulously predetermined descriptions of work, where you put yourself into it; but still don’t have any idea if you’re sailing towards the right direction or are getting trapped into a vicious cycle. That is, with only your vanity as your guide to solve your own problems.
So, there seems to be a difference, indeed. But, the only difference I seem to find between startups and academic research is the lack of a Lean approach in the latter.
The problem with locality
Greek universities are not located in Silicon Valley, of course. Hence, there is no chance of a PhD candidate finding a dragon investor, the Lean Startup approach or a chance to see a unicorn; neither inside, nor outside their campus. But still, the Lean Startup approach is what they should be using. That is, with a twist. How else would they be ready to run a startup that stands a chance at succeeding?
It’s not a dogma
At this point, I feel the urge to emphasize that I am not a dogmatic guy about the Lean Startup approach. But, how Lean can you be if you don’t use the build-measure-learn model in what the Lean process has to offer? How can you prove its usefulness, just by being a fanatic supporter? Proper implementation of the philosophy is in order, before one can claim to have seen results out of it. That said, a “Lean Ph.D.” approach should undoubtedly be made available to academic students.
Detachment from reality
A common problem in research is that you typically decide the specs for your project up front. And then, you never need to look for valuable feedback from your target audience. This results in you spending 4-6 years trying to bring a kind of value that no one needs, nor desires. Researchers tend to “stick to the plan”, lost in the realm their own logic. And they only “build”. The remaining two magical words in the Lean process, the steps defined as “measure” and “learn”, just don’t exist in their vocabulary.
What if universities adopt a “Lean Ph.D.” approach?
Ah! Millions of hours of lost effort and wasted time will probably turn into fully constructive working hours. Put that together with some of the best minds in the country; the possibilities are endless!
Not to mention, the knowledge to be gained! Tons of published papers without citations or valuable findings will begin transforming into practical scientific treasures that will take humanity a step or two further.
Imagine that! The production cycle of a study will be significantly reduced. In fact, it will be reduced to the point where the world will be able to enjoy the real reasons why researches exist. A “Lean Ph.D.” approach will, without a doubt, make societies a better place to live in.
Still, not convinced?
If you find that all this rant isn’t reason enough to convince you, consider this:
With a “Lean Ph.D.” approach, universities will not only start producing research that matters. They will transform their students into an army of “heavily armed” potential entrepreneurs, ready to conquer the markets. And social impact or not, the benefits of that alone, should be something to write home about.