On Clean Slates

What would this look like if it were easy? This is a clean slate sort of question: it is designed to remove from our minds untested and unwarranted preconceptions so that we can build new ideas from the ground up. It removes assumptions from the equation to be tested and possibly change. Beginning with a clean slate is often if not always the origin of great innovative leaps, both large and small. For example: Why are you charging $1,000 for a branding project that takes 4 weeks? Usually, the answer something along the lines of: "That's approximately what my competitors charge," or "I looked at other designers and that's a pretty average rate among them," as if looking at other people's pricing is extensive market research (it's not). If others said that $1,000 is the price of a branding project, then what information did they consult? You'll find more of the same: "That's where everybody else is priced." Who knows when or where this vicious cycle began, but it doesn't matter: it needs to be questioned.

If you didn't know anything about other projects and other businesses and you had no past experience, would you immediately call it a $1,000 project? Probably not: you would go through a very logical and calculated analysis to figure out how long the project will take, what the labor will cost, what expenses you have to pay for, etc. You would then come to a conclusion that $1,000 for a 4 week project is a joke, and that you were being completely robbed for your work. Thank God for thinking with a clean slate.

This pervades all of life: We have ideas that we don't fully understand that can and should be tested for validity. It may well change our minds about the way we do things currently. Startups, often with little experience and lots of agility, have a special opportunity and responsibility to test assumptions and thus use their clean slate to their advantage. If you're not "starting up" your operation to question the way things are currently done, why are you starting up at all? You might as well go work for a big corporation that already seems to have everything figured out: you'll save yourself plenty of headaches from people questioning your preconceived notions as they stand.

Why can startups break the rules?

The better question is, "Why don't the big companies break any of the rules?"

For one, they are massive institutions filled with politics and bureaucracy. Changes must go through an endless minefield of middle managers and board meetings in hopes that the novel idea can at least see the light of day. There are far too many great ideas that have died due to nothing more than a cutthroat corporate culture.

Second, these established organizations are just that: established. Inherent in a large, well-oiled machine are processes that have been, are, and will remain consistent and unchanged. This is what allows the machine to run so smoothly for so long, but it's not conducive to innovation. Some may call it muscle memory, and this muscle memory means it's much more natural to return to old habits or accepted practices and avoid going through the learning and testing necessary to develop new processes and practices. The path of least resistance.

Startups have none of these advantages (or disadvantages, if you may). They are brand new, largely unestablished, small, agile innovation militias. If startups don't have the advantage of size, massive amounts of funding, or preexisting processes and practices, then what advantage do they have?

Their advantage is their clean slate that allows them to create a whole new way of doing things.

So, are we just going to break all the rules?

Yes and no. Just because you can doesn't mean you should, and in the same vein, just because it's an assumption doesn't mean it will turn out to be wrong. What I'm advocating for is not to run in the complete opposite direction at every turn, because that can be nearly as misguided as following blindly. Rather, I'm advocating for you to run in the complete opposite direction for just as long as is necessary to learn the lesson. When it's really difficult to understand why a common practice is a common practice, be a contrarian in a controlled, low-risk environment for just long enough to learn the lesson for yourself. Don't bet the whole farm on one experiment, of course, but at least test the assumptions. Even if you're wrong, you've gained valuable validated learning. If you're right, you still have validated learning that you can now turn into principle and common practice.

Mind you, large corporations and bureaucracies could be doing the same things, but they're not. This is primarily because they're not positioned to innovate but to sustain an innovation that has already been made. These slow, steady behemoths produce consistent returns for their shareholders, as they should. They won't be growth companies anytime soon.

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When you realize that every common practice that's ever been created or adopted has come from someone just like you who didn't know any better at one point, the world becomes yours for the taking. Somebody, somewhere decided that we'd all drive on the right side of the road, that we should wear our watches on our left wrist, and that the alphabet is in the order that it's in. These long-held standards aren't exactly worth testing (in fact, I strongly discourage you to drive against the grain...), but they were created by someone. You, your organization, your team: you can create your own standards. Start with a clean slate. The world is yours.