“Publish houses of brick, not mansions of straw”, says Bill Kaelin, Nobel laureate and professor of medicine at the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. In an Op-Ed, he argues that papers need to include fewer claims and more proof to make the scientific literature more reliable. Scientists need to write papers that include fewer grand claims and more proof to make the scientific literature more reliable. Scientists need minimum viable discoveries.
A minimum viable product (MVP) is a version of a product with just enough features to be usable by early customers who can then provide feedback for future product development. Building and shipping an MVP is the go-to playbook for Silicon Valley start-ups. “Stop spending time building something your customers don’t want”, they say. Getting the product in front of users is key to start-up success. But minimal viable extends beyond products.
Bill Kaelin was arguing for minimum viable discoveries. How can science get back to smaller discovery units, in an age of overstuffed, and over bloated scientific papers? A shift in mindset — a minimum viable mindset. Minimal does not mean small, nor does it mean unimportant. Instead, minimal means atomic, self-enclosed, and discrete. Likewise, viable typically means sustainable; but in this case, viable means useful, as well as right. Or right enough. Like a minimum viable product, the idea just needs to be right enough to iterate and build upon in the right direction. Similarly, scientific discoveries also need to be right enough — right enough to be true, but without the complete understanding that is all but required for scientific publication.
Minimum viable also means composable. Getting the product in the consumers' hands allows the community to further build the product or idea. The true power of network effects comes into play here when the network makes an idea more robust than without it. This is also true in science. No single scientific discovery is going to stand on its own, but rather is a unit that is built upon. In a letter to Robert Hooke in 1675, Isaac Newton made his most famous statement:
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.
This statement is now often used to symbolize scientific progress. Indeed, network effects in science mean that early discoveries are built upon later by communities. Overbuilding, overfitting, or over-investigating ultimately delay progress.
A minimum viable mindset can be applied to any project or venture. For example, minimum viable videos are an approach to video content creation. I shifted the style and format of these articles towards a minimum viable blog over the past year. I began with long-form articles that were often 2000 words or longer, but I changed course to write smaller, more minimal articles. After sending the first few articles, I had the feeling that they were too long, and no one has 30 minutes to read something; even on a Sunday morning. So I tried to distill ideas into atomic units. Of course, I could not have landed on this format without putting my first few articles out into the world, but minimal means composable, digestible, and atomic.
What constitutes minimal? We arrive at a tension between a minimal viable unit, and no unit at all. Of course, this tension is much older than Bloggers or YouTubers. In 1770, Voltaire wrote,
"perfect is the enemy of good"
When is something good enough to ship? Minimum viable does not mean pumping a bunch of half-baked ideas into the ether. Quite the opposite. The end goal is to develop an idea or a product into something that is better upon iteration and feedback. A minimum viable mindset means taking an experimental mindset. An experimentalist will try something to see if it works, learn the results of that experiment, and then carry out the next experiments with that information in mind. Minimum viable takes the same approach: distill an idea or product into the best thing that you can make, share it with others to get feedback, learn from that experiment and design the next one.
It’s not about publishing houses or mansions. Instead, a minimum viable mindset is an approach that allows anyone to build anything. Starting small with a strong foundation, building those ideas, the product, and the vision into something greater. The minimum viable idea, minimum viable unit, and minimum viable mindset are about getting you closer to where you want to go, or where you want the idea to go, by starting small today.