What is minimum excellent delivery (MED), and how is it different than a minimum viable product (MVP)? What about ROI? Where does that fit?
The purpose of this article is to answer these questions and offer a compendium of relevant resources and links, ultimately a) letting my brain run free, explore, and apply agile concepts in my current work streams and b) hopefully, in the process, proposing a way to expand the value of the minimum viable product concept. While this article-turned-essay is just one software guy’s opinion, it is based on the inputs and observations of many, and I hope to find the time to extend the article into a series on the topic…if it ends up providing some return on investment :).
This article is NOT a how-to, like other explanations of product market fit (PMF) or growth hacking. A lot of how-to info exists. After running across MED, I am mainly focusing on the name MVP comparison to MED and ROI, even though the actual stuff underneath the hood is fundamentally common across them.
Of course, credibility matters. Who am I to question the notorious concept founded by Frank Robinson, Steve Blank, or Eric Ries? Well, I’m mainly joining the conversation now because life sent it my way—I’m-just-go-ing-with-the-pro-verb-i-al-flow. Though, I do have about 20 years of experience in the area.
So, which is best title for the MVP concept? Let’s get started and see what happens.
WARNING: I’m going into verbose writing mode here instead of the way Eric wanted feedback on by Wednesday at 4:18PM.
Background: Minimum Excellent Delivery versus Minimum Viable Product versus ROI—Who Cares?
In the spirit of the 5 Whys, one might ask why these questions even matter? Here is a quick, general answer and a short, personal story to explain why you probably should care.
MVP vs MED vs ROI—Who Cares? The Quick, 1-Minute Answer is Threefold
First, I believe the differences between the terms MVP, MED, or ROI can make a huge impact on revenues, costs, and profits, particularly with go to market or ANY change effort. Yes, I mean that different words in the title of the concept make a difference in the outcome.
Two, the MVP term has been misunderstood by many, and the title implies a limited scope that is focused on products when it can apply to everyone and everything.
Three—The term ROI is really focused on financial transactions, and there are many other units of output that are more atomic and not measured by formal accounting methods.
So, the theory—for others to try and apply—is that greater clarity and a broader application will have a better outcome, but the title can’t be based entirely on financial terms or it’s scope becomes limited. That theory is why, in a nutshell, the answers to these questions matter. Of course, MVP is already a big meme, and so is ROI. It would be hard to change without a groundswell alongside leadership adoption.
Well, I’ll press forward anyway. Hopefully, you are reading fast so far…let me just dive a little deeper with some examples…before my one minute runs out…
One of the original, shortest, clearest, and most widely applicable definitions of MVP, IMHO, is “the product with the highest ROI versus risk.” This sounds much different than “minimum viable anything” or “minimum excellent anything,” right? Isn’t it more ROI-related, clearer, and wider in scope? Just substitute product for thing. OK, the article is done then. :)
In case you aren’t convinced, I’ll take another view. The definition of return, above, is talking about financial outcome. So, we can assume risk is too. In this context, financial risk is defined as “the uncertainty of a return, and the potential for financial loss.” Said another way, an MVP defines the lowest possible product development investment and the greatest certainty of the most profitable revenue. These definitions don’t just apply to products and cash transactions, they can be applied to ANY value exchange, including those where ROI cannot be measured. We can put another well-known definition—the best feedback with the least effort—into the mix. One form of feedback is cash. Another form is words to help you do better. Another is a recommendation. These are not equivalent ROI measures.
To stay on point for this section, I am saying that the financial definition makes it really clear and broadens the application, and I don’t think MVP, as a term, does. However, ROI really speaks in one language—accounting. There are other options and arguable terms, as Blank points out—“minimum feature set” seems to fall into the same trap as MVP. But, MED might be an improvement over MVP in terms of clarity and better than both MVP and ROI in terms of the widest application. Now, let’s see if I can convince you.
By the way, the above answer is about 470 words, which most people should be able to read in about 60 seconds—that’s 8 words per second. OK, I kept it pretty close to one minute.
MVP vs MED vs ROI—Who Cares? Me! The Short, Personal Story in 3 Paragraphs
Now for the short story—my personal reasons for why the answers matter, which is likely to resonate with people who are responsible for leading growth or change.
Like many others who have launched products, my neurons immediately congealed upon the first reading of the words “minimum viable product.” My non-conscious quickly sent a notification to the logic processor, “Duh, this makes sense.” It was mentally bookmarked in the archive category of “dig in later.” Of course, my finger started tweetchin’ because it was ready to tweet somethin’. Some time after the MVP aha, I was working on four areas that overlapped with MVP: a) editing or writing about similar concepts on Pivotal’s blog, b) thinking through my own work priorities to optimize my limited time and ability to deliver work, c) consulting with an agile-oriented company on a different go to market mindset, and d) helping a start-up get to their next funding milestone and product launch.
Then, it happened.
The term “minimum excellent delivery” crossed my path. Eureka again. The concept was already top of mind for me. I could easily apply it to how I personally deliver my individual products and services—the work I am hired to do. Now, I’ve often erred on the side of making something excellent versus good enough. I go for excellent first than edit it—that’s just my nature. Wait, can MED apply to me? Wait, how do you judge the level and allocate your own time and energy towards that level? Doesn’t the level move? Is ROI on my work a better measure? Judging returns on effort in work is a constant practice, at least for me and many others I know. Anyway, I discovered this MED term within one company’s culture handbook, and the CEO wanted all employees to work with it in mind. It was the only reference I found on the topic at the time (and it’s cited further below).
So…when I read the words MED…my neurons congealed again, and my non-conscious said, “Uh, this term works much better. Dig in further at some point.” But, I couldn’t just file it away in long term memory. It applied to everything I was working on at the time. Perhaps a week later, I discussed the two concepts with the president of my go to market work—someone who I greatly respect, is an accomplished entrepreneur, and leads a team of people who power decision-making for major corporations and apply agile principles along the way. The conceptual differences clearly resonated with him.
So, I decided to care even more about the answer. There, that’s the 3 paragraphs and the personal story for why I care. If you are like me, hopefully, you will care too.
Not Only Product Launches—The Terms apply to Design and Brain Science Too
There was electrifying icing on my neuron cake.
My head was exploding a bit.
I reflected on how the these things interrelate with three areas I am greatly passionate about—taking new products and services to market (as an intra-preneur or entrepreneur), design thinking, and the brain science behind decision-making, behavior, culture, and leadership. For well over a decade, these things have been on my list of cool topics, and they play a major role in successful companies and start-ups. They are foundational to my mental frameworks about business in general.
OK. This could have a big impact, mattered to me personally, and could impact others personally, so this added an exclamation point on why it matters.
On to the next part.
Why did I say that the term minimal viable product has been misunderstood?
Kumfumbled—Minimum Viable Product’s Confusing Title
In many regards, the MVP title is concrete and clear at the high-level, but I believe it opens the door to ambiguity when applied to actual work. As a side note, I think that papers or articles that start with word definitions are often pedantic, but it is really helpful here because we need to form a common meaning of the different words to judge them
So…hey Adam…where is the proof of the confusion? Well, a few quick searches turn up this observation—the term “minimum viable product” has often been confused with “minimum product” and widely clarified, even as a process and in simple diagrams. Now, I believe the originators of the MVP concept provided sufficient depth in explaining the concept. Yet, it is still confused and reexplained in different ways.
Here is why I think people continue to seek clarity.
As the title of a concept, it is easy for people to stop learning after they grasp the title. Most of us lack the time and attention to really understand it—to be able to position MVP buy-in, sell many on the idea, teach it, defend the approach, and lead change. With a catchy, get-able term like MVP, people grasp the concept quickly, in the abstract. Without going deeper into understanding the concept in a concrete way, people often introduce their own perspective and bias, explain things to others in a superficial way, and fill in the gaps with their own meaning, their own spackle. You really can’t lead change if you just know the term superficially, certainly not across organizations with competing priorities. No one wants to pitch a big change and not have the chops to back it up.
So, we keep seeking an explanation.
The other theory? It is just not a title people end up liking…it isn’t right for some reason.
Defining the Word Minimum—A Common Point of Departure
So, let’s start with the word “minimum” and go through comparisons between MVP and MED, then we’ll do ROI because it is so different.
Minimum is often defined as the lowest or least quantity or amount possible, assignable, or allowable. Similar words include least possible, littlest, smallest, tiniest and the opposite is largest, most or maximum. We are exposed to many contexts of the meaning in our lives. As kids, we heard the phrase “You must be at least this tall to ride this ride,” right? We needed to be of a minimum height to ride the roller coaster. In school, there was a minimum GPA. In our first job, we probably heard about the minimum hourly wage. Then, there is the minimum drinking age. Even if we don’t play, we’ve heard of the minimum bet in poker. There is the minimum credit score, minimum credit card payment, minimum job qualifications, and many other minimums.
For both MVP and minimum excellent delivery, we have shared meaning across both—both use the word minimum. So, we are trying to do the least amount possible of some thing.
Defining Viable versus Excellent—Herein Lies a Tangible Difference
At this point, the terms diverge.
Viable is defined as something that is capable of living, practicable, workable, operable, and can grow, develop, or expand. Similar words include feasible, possible, and usable, and the opposite words are impossible, unfeasible, unlikely, unreasonable. So, we are looking to do the minimum amount of something workable and operable. So, how does one apply or judge viable? There is a spectrum, right? Who defines viable? Is it the company or the customer? Can the minimum amount of features be the starting point for something being possible, usable, or feasible? Yes, we can deliver the minimum amount of features and call it workable, grow-able, or viable. Are we talking about a prototype? Is it a proof of concept? Is it merely an explanation of a vision? Hmmm. We get to interpret it.
On the other hand, excellent is defined as having an outstanding quality, superior merit, remarkable goodness, or as just plain extraordinary. Other words like admirable, distinguished, exceptional, exemplary, first-rate, magnificent, and superb are used in it’s place along with incomparable, peerless, premium, and world-class. Opposites are inferior, ordinary, repulsive, and unworthy. It isn’t something workable or is it something people stop and go, “Wow, this is really, really cool.” We remember excellent things—songs we love, art we find amazing, people who are distinguished, experiences that are world-class. There is no spectrum of excellent. Excellent isn’t good. Excellent is memorable and stands above ordinary things. Excellent is extraordinary.
So, do we want to provide the minimum usable thing or the minimum extraordinary thing?
Let’s remove the confusion or at least dive a little deeper into the thinking. Launching a minimum usable or operable thing doesn’t wow customers unless they are visionary and see where it can go—this is something Steve Blank underscores—at least on Wikipedia—pitch the MVP to visionaries only. But, wait. Even if we deliver something viable to visionary and innovative thinkers, we still have to communicate an excellent possibility or outcome, right? We have to show something extraordinary.
To me, this is also the heart of confusion. Viable is very open to interpretation—lots of things are viable. Excellent is not open to interpretation in the same way—excellence is harder to achieve.
Defining Product versus Delivery—Broadening MVP Usage with Minimum Excellent Delivery
This section speaks to the expansion of value for the MVP concept—a key difference of the term minimum excellent delivery. Now, the original source of minimal excellent delivery (MED) explained the concept in very basic terms, and in a much shorter and concise way than what I have covered here. They make two key points:
- In the context of their 80/20 rule, they believe 20% of what you do solves 80% of the problem. They want employees to prioritize continuously, get the best bang for the buck (or time spent), and excel—a definition of the minimum excellent delivery emerges here. It means you don’t have to do something perfectly, it means you deliver the smallest amount of complete and coherent work that provides the maximum results and which you are proud of.
- In the context of their excel rule, they want employees to do work well and avoid sloppy, incomplete work—to do the essential and in an excellent way. They want people to do excellent work, but not the best possible work. But, they allow iterative improvement, never compromising on quality. They explain that this is possible by doing fewer things—strive for the smallest possible, complete and excellent solution whether you are working on apps, documentation, processes, goals, or visions. It is easier to iterate on top of something simple and waste is identified earlier.
Wait a second. Let’s quickly compare MVP with the above MED definition before we compare the last two words. MED’s original definition sounds like lean principles, like MVP, right? Again, MVP is simply defined as “the product with the highest return on investment versus risk.” (and that is regardless of purchase type, which could just be getting someone to buy into a belief or perspective). Hmmm. Now, MED is defined as the smallest amount of work to provide the maximum results—the smallest possible, imperfect, but complete and excellent work that never compromises on quality and with a size that allows for manageable iteration and low waste to produce a maximum result. Hey, these correlate! Maximum result is equivalent to highest return. Smaller sized efforts, built for iteration, and with high quality standards help reduce waste and diminish risk. Neither admit perfection is the goal.
OK. Back to the task at hand, the comparison of the last two words. This is also where there is evidence of the expanded use of MVP. This is proven by the fact that people already apply MVP to brands, various types of design, experiences, knowledge, landing pages, marketing, offers, strategy, services, and just about every other business artifact out there. The difference between the words is clear. A product is produced by labor, an outcome of a process, or what companies sell. Similar words include a crop, fruit, merchandise, product, compound, and invention. While product can mean the outcome, we get used to buying products of all types—groceries, clothes, cars, gadgets, computers, etc. I think product is more familiar due to this this context of use. On the other hand, a delivery is defined as carrying and turning things over to a recipient. Packages are delivered. Presentations are delivered. Services—whether digital or physical—are delivered. Digital and physical objects are delivered too. Similar words include distribution, shipment, and transmission while opposites include capture, confinement, keeping, holding, and restraining.
So, can we apply delivery to anything or just products? Methinks anything. Perhaps we can argue for other words like communication, interchange, reciprocation, or transfer, but the concept of delivery definitely applies to things beyond products.
With MVP out of the Way, ROI faces off with MED
OK, let’s say MED wins over MVP. Now, do we want the highest return on investment or the minimum excellent delivery? The terms are similar. Delivering something requires an investment, whether it is time, money, equipment, people, information, energy, etc. We can also assume the smallest investment with the most excellent outcomes has the highest ROI. These things sound similar.
However, ROI is really measured in terms of money—profits in relation to capital invested. ROI is really hard to apply to something more atomic than an investment, like writing a document, writing a report, taking a phone call, or delivering a presentation to lead your team. But, minimum excellent delivery is not measured by money, and it is way more atomic and flexible—we might invest an hour into something, but it is really hard to measure that hour’s ROI. It is not hard to get a sense of the excellent part or the priority of focus.
Any gaps in that line of thinking? If not, then MED wins over ROI. Personally, I wish ROI would apply. I am just a fan of the words ROI. But, I don’t know that it is better than MED if we want broad application.
Summing Up the Differences in Meaning to Avoid Confusion and Expand the Applications
Let’s see…in summary…do we want the “least amount of a work-able product” (MVP) or the “least amount of an excellent transfer of anything” (MED)? The latter. Can everyone apply ROI to their work? No. Can everyone apply MED to their work—in any role and at any level in the organization? Yes.
So, which title is best in your opinion? MVP, MED, or ROI? If you read this far and have any sort of an emotional reaction, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.
Additional Resources: 10 Great Diagrams, Charts, and Explanations
- This article on the exceptionally viable product (EVP) compares an alternative to MVP and provides several other great charts and diagrams to help explain.
- First, I’ll say that traditional market research methods aren’t that far off, really. Experiments, observations, and field trials have been around for ages. And, there is a whole new set emerging.
- Of course, TheLeanStartup.com has some great explanations and diagrams, like the continuous innovation loop.
- Same with Growth Hacking.
- ToolsForAgile.com shares an excellent axis diagram—viability on the y-axis and the amount of features on the x-axis. It says you want the most viability with the fewest features.
- Another guy talks about maximum valued product, and points out the clarification of “not focusing on minimums” of anything.
- Then, the LeanStack.com diagram of the learn loop expands the applicability of the concept to product lifecycles and tools.
- This article also has a solid diagram on User Delight vs Number of Features, which one might also call “Love vs Complexity.”
- Besides the original, this is the only other MED resource I found a search result for.
- Lastly, there are many companies who have used the approach—Dropbox is one, and there are a whole host of others, including Twitter, Groupon, and Zappos.
- Then, there are several other good MVP explanations. Interviews one and two of Eric Ries.