On Clean Slates

What would this look like if it were easy?

This question is designed to remove untested and unwarranted preconceptions from our minds, so we can build new ideas from the ground up.

Beginning with a clean slate is often if not always the origin of great innovative leaps, both large and small. For example: Ask a phone company before 2007 why they decided to put a tiny physical keyboard on the front of their phones. At the time, the answer was something along the lines of: That’s the industry standard,” as if looking at competitor products is extensive market research. (It’s not.)

If you didn’t know anything about other phones or other companies, and you had no past experience in phone development, would you immediately put a pitiful little keyboard on the front of a handheld smartphone? Possibly not: you would go through a very logical and calculated analysis to figure out what other solutions exist and how they could be implemented. That’s what Apple did with the 2007 iPhone: They started with a clean slate, turned a blind eye to all of their competitors, and created a revolutionary product unlike any other.

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, as we are individually, often with little experience and lots of agility, have a special opportunity to test assumptions and use the 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.

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. If someone wants to change something, that change 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. Far too many great ideas have died due to nothing more than a corporate culture of red tape.

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. Muscle memory develops over years of doing the same thing, and this muscle memory means it’s much more natural to return to old habits or accepted practices than to go through the learning and testing necessary to develop new processes or 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, which allows them to create a whole new way of doing things.

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

When it’s really difficult to understand why a common practice is 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 again 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.

When you realize that every common practice that’s ever been created came from someone just like you, the world becomes yours for the taking. Somebody, somewhere decided that we’d all drive on the right side of the road, that our keyboards would have a certain arrangement, 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 can create your own standards. Start with a clean slate. The world is yours.