In 2015, while serving as an assistant priest at Matero (a high-density suburb in Zambia) I wrote less than fifty pages of reflections on biblical mothers whose faith stories I thought would inspire the twenty-first century Christian mother. The idea of writing this book was ignited by a retreat I had facilitated two years earlier, for lay Christians at Kasungu Catholic Parish in Malawi. I dispatched the manuscript to my former theology professor in Nairobi – himself a prolific writer – with a twofold request: first, to proofread the text and, second, to advise whether it could be proposed to the Paulines for publication.
His response more than surprised me: ‘Send it to Orbis in New York.’ That initial feedback emboldened me and gave me the energy and the confidence to further develop the manuscript with scholarly sources, after which I sent it back to him who, in turn, forwarded it to Orbis’ acquisitions editor, with a covering letter introducing me to the global publisher.
The editor at Orbis responded quickly with a comment that left my mouth wide open: ‘The author’s ideas are counterintuitive – we will publish it!’ Then he made a few suggestions for improvement.The book, titled Mothers of Faith: Motherhood in the Christian Tradition, was eventually published in 2017, and by that time it had grown to 287 pages. In 2018, it won a Catholic Press Association (CPA) Book Award in North America, first place in gender studies.
This personal experience illustrates the importance of quick and meaningful feedback in any enterprise worthy of note. As I went through the process of production, validation and improvement, little did I know I was dabbling in what the entrepreneurial world has come to call ‘The Lean Startup’ methodology developed by Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo at Toyota, and popularised by Eric Ries, whose The lean startup (2011) and The startup way (2015) have become staples in entrepreneurship.
Principles of The Lean Startup
The Lean Startup is an approach to product development that underscores quick deliverables through fast product cycles, ongoing market feedback, and continuous product improvement.This approach to innovation provides a more efficient alternative to the Six Sigma quality-control framework developed in the 1980s, whose objective is to minimise product defects before shipping.
The basic objective of Lean Startup is to discover as quickly as possible what the market wants. As Ries (2011, p.20) states, “the goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build – the thing customers want and will pay for – as quickly as possible.” Market feedback has to be solicited as early as possible in the product development process in order to avoid wasting precious resources on something no one needs.
The first principle of The Lean Startup is what Ries calls ‘Leap-of-faith assumptions’ (LOFA). This refers to an entrepreneur’s intuition or conjecture about market needs. It is a light-bulb moment that can trigger the development of a new product.
However, LOFA is exactly that – an assumption. One must check in with real customers to ascertain the desirability of the product. Instead of conducting a market survey on a mere concept, The Lean Startup goes for what is known as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), a skeletal but functioning prototype to be tested in the market. This is the second principle of The Lean Startup.
If the MVP resonates with customers, then one goes ahead to invest more resources in improving it on the basic of the market experiment. This is called ‘validated learning’ – a third principle of The Lean Startup.
The improved product is tested again in order to measure market response and then subjected to further improvements. The Build-Measure-Lean loop is called iteration, the fourth principle of The Lean Startup.
The fifth principle is ‘Pivot or Persevere’. Pivot refers to a change of strategy necessitated by unambiguously negative or indifferent market feedback. ‘Perseverance’, instead, is a managerial decision to stay the course because the MVP shows some promise, in spite of the bottlenecks that have to be surmounted in the early phases of the product lifecycle.
The Lean Startup Methodology in Publishing
Getting one’s book or article published can be a lengthy and energy-intensive venture. Authors spend hours on end researching for and writing books.Yet, success in publishing can be elusive. A study titled ‘Success in books: A big data approach to bestsellers’ (2018) by Yucesoy, Wang, Huang and Barabási found that out of over 3 million books published in the United States every year, less than 500 make it to the New York Times bestseller lists. Though the advent of self-publishing has made it easier for people to publish their books, many of the self-published books hardly hit the headlines. Writing for Forbes Magazine (8 January, 2013), Nick Morgan estimates that most self-published books hardly sell more than 250 copies each.
Then there are journal articles. Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit estimate in their article ‘Too much academic research is being published’ (September, 2018), that about 2 million articles are published every year in around 30 000 journals. It is furtherreported that some journals, such as The Review of Higher Education, are struggling to deal witha two-year backlog of articles awaiting review or publication.Among the factors driving up the publication of journal articles are the following: the Humboldtian conception of universities as centres of research and publication (in actual fact, as Altbach and de Wit find, only few universities in the world are serious research powerhouses; in the United States, for example, only 200 out of more than 3000 institutions of higher learning are research-intensive); the growing trend in universities requiring doctoral students to publish journal articles instead of the traditional doctoral dissertation; the pressure among academics to publish or perish (sometimes academics publish not necessarily to advance knowledge but simply to rack up points for academic promotion), and the proliferation of predatory journals.
The point is clear: there is a lot of published material out there! Therefore, before one burns too much oil (and money, in case of self-publishing) on a book or an article, it is wise to seek validation from the community of readers at the early stage of development. This is where The Lean Startup methodology comes in the following steps can be helpful in soliciting initial feedback from the intended readership:
- Produce a Minimum Viable Text (MVT), capturing the substance of your idea and citing key references. At this stage, one is basically developing what is known as back-of-the-envelope insights.
- Share the MVT informally with the intended readership. These days, blogs can make for convenient and affordable testing grounds for ideas. Conferences and electronic preprint repositories are equally helpful preliminary outlets for research ideas (cf. M. Fire and C. Guestrin, ‘Over-optimisation of academic publishing metrics: Observing Goodhart’s Law in action’, GigaScience, 2019). If you receive a response that sounds or reads like ‘That’s interesting’, ‘Had never thought about that,’ ‘I want to hear more about this,’ or ‘What could be the implication of this idea on…..?’ then you know you are onto something worthwhile.
- If the honest responseis positive, develop your MVT further, taking into consideration whatever suggestions you received from your initial readers. If, however, the feedback islukewarm, indifferent or negative, probably it is a sign that your idea is not interesting enough (at least for now) to be developed further.
A Few Well-Known Precedents
Francis Fukuyama’s The end of history and the last man (published in 1992) started its literary itinerary as an essay titled ‘The end of history?’ appearing in 1989. Because of the interest (and controversy) it stirred, the author expanded it into a book, partly to elaborate some points that had not been fully developed in the essay.
Samuel Huntington’s The clash of civilisations came out as a book in 1996 but originated from the American political scientist’s lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in 1992 and was then developed into a journal article a year later.
Frits Staal’s ‘The meaninglessness of ritual’ was published in Numen (1979). The article became a critical reference for anthropologists (both for those who agreed and disagreed with Staal) and was later expanded into a monograph in 1996 under the title Rituals and mantras: Rules without meaning.
The history of publication suggests that successful books or articles are those that ‘scratch where it itches’. Sitting in one’s study, it may be difficult to know whether one’s contribution will do precisely that. The only way to know is to find out from the community, and the sooner the better.