Evolving winning ideas – iteratively using the Lean Canvas

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The Big Picture…

Having ideas is not where we typically see the innovation problem arising. Rather it emerges when we look at ideas generated. Often they:

  • lack quality (in the description, completeness, usefulness, etc)
  • are misaligned with enterprise
  • not readily understandable to sponsors/wider business
  • are too complex to implement in the enterprise (or we don’t understand the execution complexity).

That is to say, we can generate many ideas that we don’t / can’t do anything with – we are performing innovation theatre.

We can minimise the first three, whilst not frightening ideators away, by using the Lean Canvas in an iterative manner.

The idea is that the simplest problem/solution pair can be placed into the lean canvas. And then the ideator can make a series of breadth and depth iterations to improve the idea. Perhaps adding the first thoughts around revenue streams (a breadth iteration) or refining the initial thoughts on the solution (a depth iteration).

As the ideator iterates, they go as far as they feel comfortable. And are empowered to seek coaching and/or collaborators. The idea develops in a language that is readily understandable to business sponsors, without being intimidating to ideators.


I have found iterating over the lean canvas to be quickly adopted by ideators. There’s a certain excitement about using such a tool (compared to, say, just answering questions in an ideation tool). And a feeling of empowerment that they are guided by the tool on how to take the next steps in describing their idea.

Similarly it becomes quicker to weed out ideas that are not going to match the enterprises mission (or challenge posed) nor be viable propositions.

I’ve used it in the context of a traditional call to action. As well as when ideators are more systematically searching for innovations.

The idea

Two challenges I find many ideators have are how to a) turn an idea into an innovation (and sometimes to see that an idea itself is not an innovation) and b) explain their innovation to a potential sponsor in a way that is readily understandable.

Ideas generated often:

  • lack quality (in the description, completeness, usefulness, etc)
  • are misaligned with enterprise
  • not readily understandable to sponsors/wider business/others
  • are too complex to implement in the enterprise (or we don’t understand the execution complexity).

That is to say, we can generate many ideas in an ideation process, say a call to action, that we don’t / can’t do anything with – we are performing innovation theatre. Lots of action, limited tangible output, but everyone feels great (except the 94% of executives unhappy with innovation performance).

From experience, I find using the Lean Canvas Model in an iterative way is intuitive and empowering. I started doing this some 6 years ago to good effect and happy users. And the basic idea is in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Fleshing out an initial idea into a winning business understandable idea ready to become an innovation.

We start with how a typical ideator views their idea – a simple problem-solution pair. Then we make iterations to fill out the complete lean canvas. Some iterations refine an existing section of the canvas, making it more comprehensive. We will call this a depth iteration. Other iterations start by reviewing one section that triggers us to update other sections. And that we call a breadth iteration. The process then repeats.

How does using lean canvas iteratively solve the challenges?

The canvas’ structure provides guide rails on what an ideator should consider. And the idea of iterating indicates that not everything is known initially, though it can be discovered. It empowers the ideator to iterate themselves, seek coaching, and/or collaborators to help iterate.

And the non-prescriptive manner of iterations reduces performance pressure on the ideator. There is no requirement saying which part of the canvas needs to be iterated next. No definition of when the canvas is complete. They can take it as far as they want – and in my experience, that is usually further than they first thought.

We can use the natural review structure for assessing maturity of idea as well as fitness for enterprise.

And it importantly builds the idea in a language readily understandable by business sponsors. Yet is not intimidating to ideators.

I’ve used it in the context of a traditional call to action. As well as when ideators are being more systematic in their search for innovations.

OK, let’s look a little deeper at the Lean Canvas and the two iteration moves. After that, I’ll discuss why I use lean canvas and not, say, the Business Canvas Model. As well as why iteration is an important approach.

What is the Lean Canvas?

Ash Maurya created the Lean Canvas as an adaption of Alex Osterwalder‘s Business Model Canvas. And he describes it in his book “Running Lean – Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works“.

Figure 2: the Lean Canvas as a template

We can see it as a business plan on a page. What

  • is the problem we are addressing, and how are we proposing to address that?
  • is the unique value proposition and why do we have an unfair advantage over others?
  • customer segments are there as well as who are the early adopters (remember those from innovation adoption?)? And how are we going to communicate with them (channels), remembering messages and media might need to change after 16% adoption?
  • metrics are we going to use to measure our (the enterprise) success?
  • are the cost structure and revenue streams?

I like to look at this through a service-first lens. And so our problem to solve becomes the progress beneficiaries are trying to make (progress sought). Our solution is how we are offering to help the beneficiary (progress offered). And with customer segments we should probably go beyond the classic segmentation by, say age, demographics etc, and leverage Christensen’s thinking about jobs to be done.

Iterating over the Lean Canvas

Iterating over the lean canvas is a simple process of making breadth and depth iterations. This truly is no magical deep insight. Rather a very simple way to help ideators visualise what iterations might look like. Some will flesh out a particular box (depth)and others will trigger development of another box (breadth). Which in turn may trigger insights on how to make the next depth and/or breadth iteration. And so on.

It is helpful to provide a starting point for iterating from. And in common with the original 2012 and 2016 approaches, I suggest the problem/solution pair is the natural entry to iteration.

Starting with the Problem / Solution Pair

Most ideator’s will naturally start with a simple statement of a problem and their solution. They might come from a moment of inspiration, or a thought process, or perhaps an innovation contest (for example a reply to a call to action).

So, we capture both of these as shown in Figure 4. As an example, let’s say the problem we are trying to solve is to alert children (well, grown-ups) if their elderly relative stops following a predictable routine. This most likely means there is some problem with the relative. Perhaps they’ve fallen, or are ill and can’t get out of bed.

Figure 4: A Problem/Solution pair.

The example’s ideator’s idea is to use a device that monitors electricity usage in the parent’s residence. Any variation from normal usage could indicate a problem and raise an alarm. For example, not detecting the boiling of a kettle for a regular 9 am cup of tea.

As I already mentioned though, we should not constrain the users. And the above are really suggestions. When using the tool in an iterative approach with several/many users, I have found it better to discuss two types of moves. First, we can make the next iteration broader, i.e. to add more information about the idea. Second, we can make the next iteration deeper, i.e. we increase information about one or more existing fields.

Let’s see what I mean in more detail.

Making a Breadth iteration

If we fill in a previously empty aspect on the canvas, then we are creating a new iteration that is broader than the previous. In the example in Figure X, you’ll see we are filling in the high-level concept aspect.

Figure 13: Making a Breadth Move When Creating a Next Iteration of a Lean Canvas

We are adding additional information about the idea. And that additional information can easily come from the original idea creator having thought about the idea more. Or it can come from a collaborator.

Making a Depth Iteration

Sometimes we can further refine an existing aspect of the canvas. In the example shown in Figure X, we are refining both the problem and solution aspects.

Figure 14: Making a Depth Move When Creating a Next Itetstion of a Lean Canvas

When making this type of move we are increasing the depth of the canvas.

In practice, I find that making one type of move will spark off insights into another type of move. For example, making a breadth move can often lead to deeper insights into other segments.

And if you want more details, you can find them in my article on the Lean Canvas, here. But why use Lean Canvas rather than the Business Model canvas? Well, glad you asked…

Why not use the original Business Model Canvas?

I could have used Osterwalder’s original Business Model Canvas. But I feel that looks more at the delivery capability of the business model rather than the idea itself. Those aspects are important, but less so for the context I am after.

I’ve put both canvases next to each other here in Figure 3. And you’ll notice they have the same shape, though several of the segments are different.

Figure 3: Comparing the Lean Canvas to the original Business Model Canvas

For example, the lean canvas removes the key partners, key activities, and customer relations aspects. And replaces then with problem, solution and unique value proposition (which would have been folded into the value proposition segment of the business model canvas).

If you’re interested in why and how the Lean Canvas developed from the Business Canvas, as well as understanding those segment differences, then I recommend reading this article.

And, of course, if you do a google search, you’ll find different types of canvas, created after Business Canvas became popular. There are service model canvas, for example. I don’t use these as my view is I want to tease out the idea – and that is service independent. (Or deeper put, I see the world as service based, and how we help a beneficiary make progress is by offering some combination of people, systems and physical resources for them to integrate with – which leads us to a service-service continuum, where goods are a mechanism for transporting service for use in future self-service).

Why Iterate?

It is unlikely that you have a fleshed-out idea from the start. And so iterating is something we all do naturally. Using the Lean Canvas gives us some rails to follow.

Iteration is at the heart of the lean-approach. And Blank includes the following insight in his book “The Four Steps to Epiphany – Successful Strategies For Product That Win“:

only in business school case studies does progress with customers happen in a nice linear fashion. The nature of finding a market and customers guarantees that you will get it wrong several times. Therefore, unlike the product development model, the Customer Development model assumes that it will take several iterations of each of the four steps until you get it right.

Blank (2013)

This is equally true for ideas and innovation. We can look at Blank’s Customer Development Model (Figure 15) and see this.

Figure 15: The Customer Development Model – Note the Iterative Approach

Most of what we have looked at in the above is covering the first cycle: customer discovery. Where we have looked at our problem and iteratively tested that problem hypothesis and our product concept (solution) against itself. as well as identifying our early adopters used in the customer validation cycle. To fully harness the Customer Development Model we would look at testing our problem hypothesis and product concept with real customers in our target customer and early adopter segments.

There are two common ways to fill in the lean canvas. The first was described in 2012’s “Running Lean“. And the second in 2016’s “Scaling Lean – Mastering the Key Metrics for Startup Growth“. I look at these in my article on the Lean Canvas.

My experience is that we should be a little looser and let the ideator or team bounce of each other (or themselves) organically improving the idea towards an innovation, within the framework of the canvas. This allows an ideator to go as far as they feel comfortable and then seek additional help. And for synergistic review of the canvas by sponsors, internal to team or elsewhere.

Wrapping up

So, we’ve seen that using the Lean Canvas as an iterative tool gives us an incredibly flexible and inclusive tool. We get a set of guide rails on what needs to be thought of to take a high-level idea into one that is thought out.

An idea creator can stop after providing a high-level solution description if they want. That can relate to either a provided problem statement or to their own generated problem statement. Or they can carry on using the rails of the canvas to flesh out the idea themselves.

Similarly, that allows us to co-develop the ideas in a structured, yet still flexible, manner.

Idea selectors have a standard view of all ideas. And the ideas are fleshed out in a language that business decision-makers can readily understand.

If they wish, the idea creator can carry on and make depth and breadth moves as the wish. in my experience idea creators have been quite excited and happy to make those moves. They have found the guide-rails of the canvas to be helpful, supportive and giving just enough guidance on what to think of without being too prescriptive.

Alternatively, the idea creator can publish/present the canvas they have created and invite others to help make breadth and depth moves. This has also worked well as the canvas encourages positive moves. Compared to, say, a comment system that allows people to write broad-brush idea killing comments like “this will never work” or “I don’t think this is useful”.

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