Agile | Lean | Project Management | Software Engineering What If...Marvel Built a Minimum Viable Product? November 9, 2021
Neil Chaudhuri (He/Him)

Neil Chaudhuri (He/Him)

LinkedIn Neil Chaudhuri (He/Him)

In 2011, Eric Ries published The Lean Startup, and it revolutionized software development. Lean principles had already made it into agile software development, but The Lean Startup fills in a lot of gaps to turn the abstract principles behind the Agile Manifesto into something real.

For example, even if you nailed agile and built the thing right, how do you know you built the right thing? In other words, it’s great to execute on your project and build exactly what you intend on time and on budget, but when you’re done, how do you know people will actually buy it? Although the Agile Manifesto never answers this question because it assumes you are on the right track all along, Ries gives us an answer.

The Minimum Viable Product

Probably the most profound innovation in The Lean Startup is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

(You can watch Ries himself talk about it, but I have to warn you that it looks like it was filmed by the director of The Blair Witch Project.)

The idea is really quite simple. Whether you are conscious of it or not, the product you have in mind is based on your assumptions about what your customers want and why, so the purpose of the MVP is to validate those assumptions with hard data around a lightweight representation of your product before you commit your full resources to building it out in full. You give your early adopters access to the MVP and consider their feedback, which Ries calls “validated learning.” Validated learning is crucial. For Ries, it’s quantifiable feedback that is “the unit of progress for lean startups.”

Based on what you learned, you either ”pivot” to something else more aligned to what your customers want or “persevere” because you had it right all along. From this point on, you have quantifiable, proven demand for your product, and you can be confident that you will be investing in building the right thing.

Like a lot of terms in tech that blow up, consultants often use MVP to mean something different from what Ries intended—most commonly to mean the first version of your product and/or a really scaled down version of it. In either case you’ve implicitly decided without any validated learning what you want to build. The fact it’s in its earliest stages is irrelevant.

So what does all of this have to do with Marvel?

The MCU Juggernaut

Unless you have been living in the Quantum Realm for the last decade, you know the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s a monumental achievement in cinema that has taken decades of Marvel comics and reformulated them into a multibillion dollar juggernaut movie franchise that has raised once second-tier heroes like Iron-Man, Thor, and Black Widow to the stature of eternal favorites like Spider-Man, Captain America, and Hulk and put Mjolnirs and Infinity Gauntlets into the homes of ardent fans worldwide.

It may be hard to imagine now, but there was no guarantee of success at the beginning as Marvel was struggling as a business having sold off their most bankable assets. This forced Kevin Feige, the architect of the MCU, to get creative to and derive new ways to bring Marvel heroes to life.

They succeeded spectacularly, and now they have to do it all over again.

Firmly entrenched in global pop culture, the MCU now faces pressure to build on its foundation with new heroes and villains, many of whom like Moon Knight and Titania lack the star power of Captain America and Spider-Man and are all but unknown to mainstream audiences. And considering that the MCU has decided to go all in on the Multiverse, there are literally infinite possibilities for stories.

How can Marvel decide what direction to take with the MCU?

What If? is Marvel’s MVP

There is no question Kevin Feige has sketched out the broad contours of the next iteration of the MCU. Still, as sterling as his record is, he’s working from assumptions about what will make for great stories and what will thrill audiences going forward. If he followed The Lean Startup model, Feige would build a lightweight MVP to test his hypotheses with passionate fans and measure their response for some validated learning.

It turns out that is exactly what Marvel is doing with What If?…

What If?… is an animated show on Disney+ that imagines the MCU heroes we know experiencing very different lives throughout the multiverse. For example, we see Peggy Carter receive the super soldier serum rather than Steve Rogers to become Captain Carter, and we watch somberly as T’Challa, voiced just as he is portrayed on screen by the legendary Chadwick Boseman in his final performance, becomes Star-Lord rather than Peter Quill. It’s heroes and villains we know so well from the MCU facing new challenges alongside other heroes and villains we’ve never seen them interact with before.

The novel combinations are fun and exciting, but they’re also an experiment. How will fans, primarily hardcore MCU fans (early adopters if you will) react? You can easily track this with viewership metrics on Disney+, mentions on Twitter, and the impressions of media influencers for validated learning. When a story doesn’t click, Marvel can dismiss it as a fun idea for the fans and pivot to something else. On the other hand, when a story does click, Marvel can persevere and explore it further on a live-action series on Disney+ or even on the big screen within established MCU canon.

Best of all, Marvel can test their hypotheses, engage in validated learning, and guide the future of the MCU accordingly at a low cost. What If?… is high-quality animation, and most of the elite talent that portrays the characters on the big screen voices them on the show. Still, the cost of running these experiments in animation without any real commitment since the stories all happen outside the “prime” MCU universe is orders of magnitude less than it would be going all in with any of the What If?… plots in live action.

The Key Lesson

One way or another, we are all in the business of product development. Too often we assume we have accurately gauged customer sentiment, and we exude hubris that success is inevitable only to fail miserably.

Don’t be afraid to test your assumptions before you go all in. Build a Minimum Viable Product—something more lightweight and less expensive that will nonetheless provide your early adopters something meaningful to evaluate. The validated learning you get from their feedback will either help you pivot to something more aligned with what people want or empower you to persevere with your original idea with legitimate confidence it will sell. Once you start executing, then you can argue on Twitter about whether you need daily meetings and whether people should be allowed to sit down in them.

Using an MVP to build confidence in your product direction is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done with What If?…, but you don’t have to be Marvel to fly higher, further, faster, baby.