By Clay Chandler

Clay is an author, editor and fellow at Hult International Business School where he follows technology, economics and global business. He is a former Asia editor at McKinsey & Company, and has held senior editorial roles at Fortune, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter @claychandler

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Eric Ries, like Peter Thiel, is an entrepreneurial practitioner turned theorist and guru.

The company he founded, IMVU, a creator of 3D avatars, isn’t as big or well known as Thiel’s multi-billion dollar blockbusters. But in the tech world, Ries’ ideas have been no less influential.

That’s a little perplexing because, in many ways, Ries’ advice is the exact opposite of Thiel’s. Where Thiel champions brilliant social misfits who “think different” and come up with dazzling, this-changes-everything new insights, Ries lauds tinkering, “iterating” and “split-testing.” The problem with most startups, he argues, is that founders are too infatuated with their own genius. They waste way too much time and effort (not to mention money) in pursuit of grand schemes that customers don’t actually want or need. In fact, one almost gets the sense from reading Ries’ book that he thinks genius is a hindrance for entrepreneurs. He seems to suggest that, whatever a venture’s first business model might be, it’s apt to fail—and the smaller a founder’s ego, the quicker he’s apt to dust him or herself off and move on to the next thing. To hear Ries tell it, the difference between startups that survive and those that don’t is that survivors fail fast, fail small and learn from their mistakes. Indeed, Ries’ mantra is “build, measure, learn.” He argues that startup success can be “engineered” through the application of a “structured and scientific” approach to innovation.

To make sense of that approach, it helps to understand that Ries wants to apply to startups and entrepreneurialism the basic insights of the “lean manufacturing” philosophy pioneered by Japanese manufacturers like Toyota Motor Co. Veteran management wonks will recognize that the “lean” manufacturing approach was popularized by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones in their 1996 book, Lean Thinking, which tried to explain why Detroit’s giant car makers were getting their tail-lights kicked by Japanese companies like Toyota. The secret, Womack and Jones argued, was that Japanese managers were much more focused on tiny details on the factory floor and obsessed with avoiding waste. At the first sign of defect, they were willing to shut down the entire assembly line and rethink the process until they figured out why things went wrong. Ries says startups should operate in much the same way.

Ries’ definition of startup—“a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty”—differs significantly from Thiel’s. This yearning to take the uncertainty out of innovation leads Ries to the almost nerdy conclusion that startups exist not to realize some grand new vision, or even make cool stuff, but rather to learn how to build businesses that are sustainable. This learning process, he thinks, can only happen through constant trial and error, by running experiments that allow the entrepreneur to test the viability of the original business model. Thus Ries’ enthusiasm for “split-testing”—the process of constantly trying out small variations of a product to see which will prove more popular with consumers.

Ries’ focus on testing leads to another core tenant of the “lean” approach. Rather than working on a product until perfect, entrepreneurs should be willing to rush out flawed versions—what he calls a “minimum viable product”—to figure what works and doesn’t. Notably, Ries doesn’t advocate doing what customers say they want; the problem with customer feedback, he contends, is that customers never know exactly what they want in advance.

Ries argues that eventually nearly every startup will reach a point where founders have to decide whether to “perservere” with the brilliant idea they thought was going to work in the first place, or “pivot” to a more practical alternative that will create value for customers. One gets the sense that Ries believes that, in most cases, the right option will be to pivot.

Ries doesn’t buy Christensen’s notion that big companies can’t innovate. That message plays well with Fortune 500 giants. One of Ries’ biggest fans is GE CEO Jeff Immelt.

But lean thinking also has its share of detractors. Among them: my old Fortune colleague Justin Fox, who noted in a recent Bloomberg column that “so far, the evidence we’re in a startup-fueled economic renaissance is still pretty sparse. Despite the incessant talk of disruption and startups, most economy-wide indicators of entrepreneurship and business dynamism have been sliding for years. Productivity growth has been sputtering.”

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries (Crown Business), 2013.