Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…


In some ways, it’s all very well people like Eric Ries saying that startups operate in an environment dominated by uncertainty, but where does this uncertainty come from? It’s no good throwing your hands up and saying “I dunno, m8″, it has to come from somewhere… but from where?

I suspect the answer will turn out to be closely related to what I discussed in my post on intuition & startups, but as you’ll see, it’s a bit of a subtle one. It runs like this…

Firstly, the Internet has opened up what I think of a near-instantaneous conduit for sending and receiving ‘claimed certain’ information. Yet the act of typing itself – somewhat like writing a business plan – forces you to give shape to your swirly, incomplete, ever-developing thoughts about a subject, insofar as it forces you to tag something as ‘certain enough to be written down‘. However, for reasons it would probably take an entire book to cover, typing is also an extraordinarily difficult medium for trying to express your doubts, fears, issues, contradictions, concerns, mismatches, in fact the whole gamut of uncertainties.

Secondly, the wider point is that our modern, atomistic, scientific language has co-evolved with typing (and, to a very large degree, with the serial tyranny of printing. When we write, we serialize our thoughts, give them a book-like shape as if it were the only way they could ever be expressed. Of course, the trap here is that we children of this serial revolution can be tempted to think that this is the only way of thinking – that we can only reduce things to logical positivistic facts, suitable for scientific management of some sort. If language defines our thought, we must be hugely careful that that language does not constrain our thought solely to ‘facts’.

Thirdly, because Internet search has so dramatically de-skilled research (in fact, one of the first ten words my son was able to say was was “Google”), we have greater & quicker access to (claimed) certain knowledge than ever before – finding out the basics on nearly anything can be achieved in a matter of seconds, which is probably two orders of magnitude quicker than 30 years ago. Of course, this has also made it transparently clear how unreliable a lot of this (claimed) certain knowledge is (c.f. the endless debates about countless individual Wikipedia pages).

So, if you put the act of typing, the dominance of scientific language, and the widespread dissemination of (claimed) certain knowledge together, you should be able to grasp where I’m heading here: which is, that by stripping out all of the certainties of business knowledge (effectively by commoditizing them, in all their unreliable glory), the gory, raw material of business becomes that which remainsuncertainty. And we don’t really have satisfactory language or typing tools for expressing this.

In fact, I’d say the best place to glimpse uncertainty in modern business is probably YouTube (or, to be more specific, online business video sites). However cagey business people attempt to be, interviews are normally far more telling than any documents they might produce on the same subjects. All the things that worry people, all their practical concerns, all the ‘startup jelly’ they haven’t yet managed to nail to the wall, these all tend to come out by various means – tics, gestures, discomfort, physical unease… these all express the underlying tensions of where people and their companies are at.

So, when our knowledges are in conflict, our bodies often reflect it too: in fact, I’d say if a typical startup owner were to express themselves genuinely, he or she would be a writhing mass of physical conflict. Arguably the biggest mountain startup managers have to climb is to get past the lies, self-deceptions and statistical mythologies which support most industries’ status quos, in order to find anything like a sustainable position for their company going forward. But I’d say you’ll almost never achieve that by relying on press releases or competitor-commissioned ‘research’: learning isn’t just about reading stuff on the web, learning is about seeing for yourself how things do or don’t work, and then really taking what you see on board.

I can only really suggest you talk to a broad range of customers throughout your company’s value chain (I hate the word “stakeholder”, it makes me think of Abraham Van Helsing) to find out what’s bothering them, to find the itches they can’t currently scratch, and only then try to make up your own mind.

But this takes time. Hence, the biggest lie about the Internet is that it lets you learn useful stuff fast, when in fact the stuff that migrates to the web becomes commoditized and not-so-useful. [*] Hence the big underlying story here is that the Internet devalues certain knowledge, while making uncertain knowledge immensely valuable. Just thought you’d like to know that!

[*] Apart from articles on this blog, of course. 😉

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