The Problem with MVP
Updated: Jul 17
The Lean movement has popularised the concept of Minimum Viable Product (or MVP), usually defined as the ‘version of a new product which can be used to get real customer feedback with the least effort’ However, it requires judgement to understand, for any given situation, what MVP actually means. The term MVP has been used to refer to products with different maturities, ranging from a prototype product to a fully-fledged and marketable product, so its practical utility remains questionable.
From a practical standpoint the term MVP is frequently used in the sense described by Steve Blank, who typically refers to a Minimum Viable Product as one containing a Minimum Feature Set, but this is still an unsatisfactory situation given what we now know about product maturity, the meso-economic vectors and real commercialisation journeys.
When looking at the idea of MVP it may be helpful to understand the origins of the term: it was first defined by Frank Robinson(1) in 2001 and then popularized by Steve Blank(2) and Eric Ries(3), as a key component of the lean development methodology-which focuses on optimising variables which actually constitute a sub-set of the 12 meso-economic vectors which shape growth (and so is well suited to some new software-based products)
The risk is that MVP can be much less helpful outside this environment, especially where the challenge cannot be tackled using only a sub-set of the overall driving forces, and where the prevailing market spaces often change significantly.
What does Minimum mean?
The first problem with using the concept of MVP is defining what Minimum means - at best this can only be a subjective judgement because it is not always clear which aspects of the product this refers to and how we can understand the variation relative to which the minimum is judged. In fact, our data-driven research on how companies grow shows that the most reliable metric of growth is cumulative customer growth, not any feature of the product; and that this growth can be described by diffusion-enabled growth interrupted by 3 discontinuities or Chasms.
What does Viable mean?
This is where we encounter the biggest problem with this concept: when assessing the state of a product, what do we mean by Viable? Are we referring to the viability of the technology, the viability of the functionality on offer, or the commercial viability of the product? This somewhat simplistic notion might have survived examination if Rogers’ arbitrary definition of different types of customers for a product could still be supported by the available data (Rogers postulated innovators, early adopters, early majorities, late majorities and laggards-but none of these categories are actually supported by empirical data, so even the notion of innovators and early adopters is no longer supportable).
So instead we are left with the notion of continuous growth interrupted by Chasms, which could form the basis of defining viability, but that would relate to demonstrating functionality (Chasm I) and commercial sustainability (Chasm II) - which is not quite the sense in which the term is used currently.
What do we mean by Product?
Finally, we have the challenge of how we define products. The Triple Chasm Model incorporates the 9 Layer model(4) which shows that Products and Services display increasing levels of complexity which need to be understood. For example, a platform for delivering digital content may work in narrow functional terms but demonstrating overall product viability may involve looking at distribution infrastructures and business models.
The over-riding message for entrepreneurs should be:
Avoid simple labels such as MVP, when describing your proposition and its maturity. They may be less helpful than you think because the term has been used to describe products at Chasms I, between Chasms I and II, and also at Chasm II.
Instead think about where you are on the maturity curve and understand the key vectors you specifically need to focus on, based on where you are relative to the first two Chasms.
Robinson, Frank, "What is a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)? - Definition from Techopedia"
Blank, Steve (March 4, 2010), "Perfection by Subtraction – The Minimum Feature Set"
Ries, Eric (August 3, 2009), "Minimum Viable Product: a guide"
Phadke, U.P & Vyakarnam, S. (2017), Camels, Tigers & Unicorns, WSP, UK